Among contemporary world artists, the Guangdong new media and video artist Cao Fei is among the most intriguing explorers of the boundaries between the fantastical, the global/political and the everyday. Her recent work "Whose Utopia" unquestionably steals the show at the new Deutsche Guggenheim exhibit "Fantastic Narratives in Contemporary Video," in Berlin.
"Whose Utopia" is an elegant triptych, or else a concerto for factory in three movements. It has a distinctly musical symmetry to it. The first segment called "Imagination of Product," mixes the prosaic and the mystifying in the same degrees as its title, a fairly cute reversal of the common phrase "Product of the Imagination," which nonetheless contains a pregnant ambiguity. Is it the human who imagines the product or is it the product that does the imagining?
Karl Marx, theorist of the spectral, would have certainly made a case for the latter. As he once wrote of a table, created as a commodity: "It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but...stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will..."
In the first segment of "Whose Utopia" the lightbulbs (double entendre: ideas?) produced by the factory engage in a stately, lyrical dance, apparently of their free will, down the assembly line, mingling with the machines charged with performing various operations on them. Complete with an uneasy soundtrack and luminescence eerily penetrating the industrial gloom, the result lands somewhere between Chaplin's Modern Times, the Brothers Quay's "Street of Crocodiles," and the popular television series How It's Made.
The middle act, however, pursues neither satire, nor grotesquerie, nor dehumanizing functionalism, but something quite different: the poignantly oneiric. As in a fascinating daydream, a ballerina and a tai-qi artist perform their delicate craft throughout the factory spaces. Perhaps the only way to seize the day from the inhuman phantasmagoria of capitalism is with the human fantasy of performative arts? The last section would seem to bear this out in one sense, while also carrying a reminder that what we are seeing is also a resolute reality. it features video portraits of factory employees in front of their equipment staring directly at the camera, and finally, a group of them holding up a sign reading "My Future is Not a Dream."
"Whose Utopia" conveys all the above and more, while never seeming politically or allegorically reductive. It has a visual and stylistic specificity that makes it continually new and unsettling, and difficult to forget afterwards.