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The resurgence of Cao Fei


With her recent exhibitions at Secession in Vienna and now MoMA PS1, Cao Fei seems to be primed for a resurgence in visibility. As a very young artist in the late '90s and naughts in China, Cao was an exemplary thinker who epitomized China’s rapid, wanton growth, and made frequent appearances in biennials throughout the world. (Interestingly, her father Cao Chong’en was also an artist who made realist sculptures of Mao and Deng Xiaoping, capturing a very different life in China admit the Cultural Revolution.) As Barbara Pollack notes in her profile of Cao for the New York Times, the artist took a break from the art scene for a while, reportedly to have children. An excerpt of Pollack’s informative profile is below, the full version here.

Fresh off the plane from Art Basel Hong Kong this week, the Chinese artist Cao Fei was stationed at MoMA PS1, ready to supervise the installation of her first United States museum retrospective. At 37, she seemed too young to warrant an extensive survey. Dressed in a black hoodie and fashionable striped pants, Ms. Cao could have been one of the characters in her early videos, teenagers influenced by hip-hop culture or 20-somethings costumed as Japanese manga characters.

But the artist — often described by the art world as the embodiment of the new China — has been on the scene internationally for nearly 20 years, with featured spots at the Tate Modern in London and the Venice Biennale. She has managed to encapsulate her country’s societal shifts through multimedia works, photographs, films and sculptures. And a stroll through the exhibition, which opens on Saturday, is both a tour and a critique of contemporary China, its rapid urbanization and the impact globalization has had on it.

“Cao Fei visualizes the tension that a person of her age has to face in China on a daily level,” said Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1, who has worked with her throughout her career and who organized the exhibition, “Cao Fei,” which runs through Aug. 31. “It is important for a New York audience to find out that you can find someone as cutting-edge in Beijing as you can here.”

The story of Ms. Cao contrasts two generations of Chinese artists. Her father, Cao Chong’en, was an accomplished realist sculptor whose statues of leaders from Mao to Deng Xiaoping appear throughout China. Coming from a landowner family that suffered greatly after the 1949 revolution, he learned to do what he was told and make whatever the Communist Party required.

Cao Fei (pronounced TSOW fay) rebelled against that kind of art. She was born in 1978 in Guangzhou, a port city northwest of Hong Kong on the Pearl River and the manufacturing center of China. It opened to Western investors far earlier than cities in the north of the country. And she grew up absorbing the various influences that flooded her hometown and focused on creating art that examined China’s economic boom. She gained attention early from prominent European curators before being seen at home, thus bypassing some of the obstacles usually encountered by female artists in China.

*Image of Cao Fei by Bess Adler for the NY Times