Cao Fei is one of the key figures in Chinese art to emerge in the twenty-first century. She first began working from the context of hyperdevelopment typical of her home region in the Pearl River Delta, when the Chinese south seemed to pose a real challenge to the hegemony of the Beijing and Shanghai scenes. Cao Fei came to the capital around 2005 and began making works that examine the subjectivities, fantasies, and affects of the people—particularly young people—at the heart of these social transitions. Her film investigation Whose Utopia (2006), set in a light bulb factory, spun poetic narratives from the ordinary lives and actions of workers; RMB City (2007–2012), an extended project that unfolded in the virtual space of Second Life, built an urban universe around the artist’s versatile avatar China Tracy. Her more recent film Haze and Fog (2013) looked at the shadier, less savory mutations of human conduct that unfold in a society that allows itself to breathe hazardously dirty air.
La Town (2014) completes Cao Fei’s progression from utopia to dystopia and from the precociously digital to the stubbornly analogue. A forty-minute film set entirely inside diorama landscapes she constructs from (mostly European) modeling figurines, the project reads as a memoir of an archetypal, postapocalyptic civilization. It is a city of atmospherics and hypotheticals, narrated in French by a man and a woman who tentatively reach for an explanation of what the place was and what it has become. Laid waste by some biblical yet plausible combination of epidemic, upheaval, and economic collapse, remnants of its erstwhile exuberant pastiche persist, where, for example, the lyrical and literal “one-horse open sleigh” might collide with a Chinese bullet train. The living take predictable refuge in drugs and sex, or attempt to form provisional communities, doomed utopias amidst the pervasive fall. For Cao Fei this is just the latest project in an oeuvre full of propositional articulations, based in fact but sublimating into fiction. In her work, she hints at the sorts of new ideas about social organization that might grow from the experience, at once collective and atomized, of a nation in a prolonged state of revolution.