Text by Beichen Yang
We introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor,
We bring people into closer kinship with machines,
We foster new people.
The New Man, free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, will have the light, precise movements of machines, and he will be the gratifying subject of our films.1 Dziga Vertov
The term New Man seems to have become obsolescent nowadays, as it is difficult to find a contemporary equivalent of its meaning. In Marx’s vision, human history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature, and so the creation of the New Man has always been an aspiration deeply rooted within this faith in the communist convention. The communist movement of the last century was remarkably successful worldwide in establishing the party-state and carrying out projects aimed at a total social transformation. However, behind the ideological, political, and social changes, a much more ambitious and comprehensive goal was to be revealed: to remold the mind, psychology, and even character of individuals by means of various policies designed for a New Man. Furthermore, to make history and perpetuate the revolution through this New Man. After “The End of History,” the conventional view is that the communist experiment with human nature was a Sisyphean effort doomed to failure, or just another case of terrible abuse of ideology and state power in manipulating people’s mentality and reshaping their lives. In the post-revolutionary era, we have almost forgotten the potential that is embedded in the utopianism and idealism of the New Man: from the Soviet Union to China then to Cuba, from the mind to the body then to the relationship between man and machine, the creation of the New Man has formed many avant-garde epistemologies and practices, which have left a certain force that can be repeatedly activated and regenerated, particularly in the field of art.
In post-socialist China, a historical process of “farewell to revolution” began in the 1990s, with the expectation of a highly depoliticized life, anchored by consumerism. This kind of life, in conjunction with the process of globalization, has made the once highly ideological Chinese society a distant world. However, as some keen thinkers such as Arif Dirlik have observed, the success of the “China Model” depends to some extent on the “revolutionary heritage” that preceded it, which has been playing a key role in China’s history since the Reform and Opening Up.2 As Boris Groys pointed out: “This project (New Man), which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and is often dismissed today as utopian, has never really been abandoned de facto. In a modified form, this project continues to have an effect, and its initial utopian potential has been updated repeatedly.”3 Of course, it must be admitted that the meaning of “new” in the contemporary world can no longer be understood within the framework of the communist revolution or the Cold War; it has taken on a contemporary social-political and temporal framework in response to some new imagination and commitment for the future. In this respect, the artist Cao Fei represents a very unique case. Her works have an invisible thread that unfolds the creation of a new humanity. In her works from different periods, Cao Fei has created images of New Man with a continuous speculative attitude, based on a technological, emotional and political vision of the time.
Post-socialist New Man
Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia? was filmed in 2006, five years after China joined the World Trade Organization, and two years after that it would welcome the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Undoubtedly, it was the moment when China embraced globalization the most, and began its deep involvement in global material and capital markets. The labor-intensive industries represented by the Pearl River Delta region earned the name of the “World Factory,” attracting thousands of young farmers from all over China to become industrial workers in a very short time. They left the land and entered the factory, and then some of them became the protagonists of this film. Whose Utopia? takes on a very special significance, just as the Lumière Brothers’ La sortie de l’usine (1895), both creating a new image of the worker, one that did not exist in the previous history of moving image. Cao Fei captures the New Man—a new kind of worker and proletariat—representing the most important labor force in China in the 21st century, but one that has long received little attention. Yet in contrast to the vision of “re-politicization”4 that the thinker Wang Hui talked about in his discussion of the new workers, Cao Fei creates a new kind of visibility in the form of an artist.
The film is divided into three parts, presenting three very different points of view. In the first part, a factory is shown, consisting of assembly lines and automatic machines. The interior of the factory is clearly a world where machines take precedence; there is no human presence in the film for a long time. The movement of the camera follows the various objects and the different processes that seem to be the main protagonists here—a situation that is not reversed by the appearance of humans later on. The repetitive movements of the workers appear to be merely extensions of the machines. This undifferentiated depiction presents humans in a somewhat non-human way, which in turn creates a high contrast to the second part. If the first part depicts a “utopia” of things—the seamless flow of products between machines, humans and the global trade chain—the second part introduces a conflicting utopia: the potential of the worker’s body. Workers perform ‘peacock dances,’ street dances and other types of improvised dance in the factory, introducing a new kind of physical visibility that contrasts with the constant forward motion of the assembly line. Interestingly, Cao Fei does not portray these movements as a form of conflict and confrontation, or as a political mobilization. They take place between the worker and the machine, as if the body is simply performing another kind of production, one that violates the standards of productivity and efficiency. It is only when the photographic portraits of individual workers in the third part of the film appear that we discover the artist’s true intention: to capture and preserve invisible emotions, dreams and desires, to create a participatory and inviting film that reshapes the factory as a space in which a new political subjectivity is conceived.
Post-digital New Man
If in Whose Utopia? Cao Fei remains an “intruder”, in RMB City (2008-2011) she becomes a part of the New Man she has created by participating personally. Though everything in this digital media city is virtual, Hou Hanru perceptively pointed out back then: “In fact, for Cao Fei, venturing into the seemingly infinite world of Second Life is a way to continue her social, cultural and even political commitment. Second Life is actually firmly grounded in the ‘First Life’. From its launch, apart from its commercial goal, it has already been explored as a testbed for and prolongation of economic investments, social communication, political investigation and discourse.5 It is in this sense that the digital has become post-digital: the real and the virtual have been thoroughly mixed together and are each other’s avatars. One might even say that this digital utopia is in fact a “Metaverse” based on the Second Life. What Cao Fei tries to achieve is to become a planner, builder, gamer, user and citizen of this new world simultaneously, a state of newness that can only be reached in a digital identity. This is most evident in i.Mirror (2007).
In i.Mirror, the predecessor of People’s Villages, the protagonist travels through various seemingly contradictory landscapes: the jungle of urban skyscrapers, beaches of the middle class, the decaying suburban areas, heavily polluted factories, and grand European-style churches… By today’s standards, the computer-generated images of the time look undoubtedly extremely crude, but one will still be fascinated by this journey: “She” explores the world progressively, becomes accustomed with the constantly changing scenes, and even encounters a love affair. Her journey of self-discovery is different from the usual pattern of character development in games, because China Tracy is Cao Fei herself—she recorded her actions in Second Life and edited into this three-part cyber epic. The artist directly involves herself in the project, role-playing blurs the boundary between virtual and the real, “actor” and “director,” or makes the issue of subjectivity intriguing in the interaction between the two. In i.Mirror, Cao Fei keenly captures the explosive growth of economy and the proliferation of consumerism brought about by China’s accession to the WTO and the rapid development of the internet, which together form the foundation of RMB City. The flying flags and symbols all over the sky also proclaim the victory of transnational capitalism, but at the same time, the artist realizes their fragility. The financial crisis sweeping the world a year later undoubtedly proves that her intuition is correct. The post-digital New Man in the film is melancholic and perplexed. She has already sensed the approaching moment of dismissal. At the end of the film, China Tracy escapes from a frenzied party and blends with the shrinking sunset at the far end of the horizon—just like the name of the interactive game the artist launched a few years later, this shall be an allegory for the “Apocalypse Tomorrow”.
Post-human New Man
In one of Cao Fei’s latest works, Nova (2019), the male protagonist is a post-human New Man, a time traveler born through the technological machinations of a socialist country, whose journey takes place not only in the diegetic world, but also in a far more expansive historical context. Unlike the absolute futurism of RMB City, Nova offers a ‘nostalgic futurism,’ a kind of lost utopia. Cao Fei attempts the impossible in her new work: while old socialist ideologies are reactivated, they do not appear as propaganda, but as the real power behind the creation of new forms of life, matter, energy and medium. The utopian undertones of Nova lie in the discovery of a certain model of imaginary power in a seemingly abandoned idealist world; this model traverses many existing measures and establishes new links between time and space, body and affect, and life and machinery. For me, the most moving scene in Nova appears towards the end: as all the protagonists travel through space and time to convene at the Hongxia Theatre, their reunion is represented on screen by the ending of another film, The Eternal Wave (1958). This overlaying of two endings seems to reveal the true intention of Nova: to discover a kind of existence that remains imperishable and indestructible even after some sixty years.
Nova is set in the period of China’s socialist construction. With the extreme idealistic passions and the joint efforts of both the Chinese and foreign scientists, a brand-new computer platform is invented. It can be applied not only for calculation, but also for travelling through time and space. However, with the failure of the experiment, the protagonist is abandoned in a hollow zone, shaped like a lonely ghost, forced to wander between these highly discontinuous and unstable dimensions. He has lost his identity and records, constantly changing between particle, data and his physical form, while the only thing that can sustain his existence is his memory and emotion. Nova looks back at the Chinese revolutionary years of the 20th century from the perspective of the “The End of History.” The digression of time in the film points to many unfinished or forgotten utopian practices in the history of New China. The malfunctioning time machine is a mixture of radical technology, cybernetic acceleration and staunch communist faith. In this sense, Cao Fei seems to form a distant echo with Dziga Vertov: like human, the machine is not only the witness of history, but also the creator of history; a kinship between the New Man and the machine must be established to make history truly work. In this sense, Nova is imbued with the dimension of the historical avant-garde, where the former communist New Man meets the post-humanist New Man. If Whose Utopia? and RMB City point to the present and the future respectively, then this time the artist tries to reopen and correct the trend of time, establishing a new path from the past to the future to bridge the misunderstanding, wounds and ruptures in history.
Dziga Vertov, WE: VARIANT OF A MANIFESTO, 1922.
Arif Dirlik, China in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press, 2015), 299.
Boris Groys, The Obligation to Self-Design, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/00/68457/the-obligation-to-self-design/.
Wang Hui, “Two Kinds of New Poor and Their Future,” in China’s Twentieth Century (New York/London: Verso, 2016), 256.
Hou Hanru, Politics Of Intimacy – On Cao Fei’s Work, http://www.caofei.com/texts.aspx?id=17&year=2008&aitid=1.
Text by Beichen Yang
After Language / Post Society
(b. 1978, Guangzhou, China) lives and works in Beijing. Selected solo shows include: Serpentine Galleries, London (2020); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2019); the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative, Guggenheim Museum, New York (2018); Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (2018); and K21 Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf (2018); MoMA PS1, New York (2016); Secession, Vienna (2015); Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (2015); and Tate Modern, London (2013). Cao Fei is the recipient of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021.
is a curator/scholar of film and contemporary art. Currently lecturer at The Central Academy of Drama (Beijing), he is a member of the Thought Council at the Fondazione Prada (Milan, Venice), a guest researcher at the New Century Art Foundation (Beijing, Shanghai), and contributing editor of Artforum China.