n 2010, Cao Fei drew a map portraying a fictional landscape composed of three rivers: the Pearl River and Nu River in China and the River Po in Italy. The artist’s hometown, Guangzhou, is located in the Pearl River Delta, while she travelled along the Nu River with Cantonese rappers in her Nujiang River Project. The River Po, in turn, passes through Turin, where Cao Fei was working on a project in 2010. These rivers resonate with Cantonese culture, public space, international youth culture, and Cao Fei’s own exposure to the international art world, all of which are important facets in the prism of the artist’s works. Whether real like the Pearl River Delta, or conceptual like the flows of desire or consciousness, rivers and streams modify, generate, and sculpt Cao Fei’s practice while having their qualities revealed in the artist’s works.
“Crossing the water by feeling the rocks”(??????): this pragmatist slogan advocated by former Chinese leader Chen Yun uses the river as a metaphor for flux and unknown challenges. Heraclitus said that no one steps into the same river twice; everything flows and nothing stays still. The river is a highly versatile image often used in the history of philosophy and politics, where it has been linked to concepts of becoming, such as time and consciousness. Rivers not only suggest the unknown, they do not themselves know where they are going and, like libidinal intensities, are not pre-structured. A river is not a moving whole of homogeneous substance but, like its two banks or sides, itself changes while being changed, unfolding via a Latourian translation between itself and other actants that it encounters. A mutual transformation takes place between objects including fish, plants, soil, and the river itself, which reveals its own heterogeneous, singular qualities and those of whatever comes into contact with them. The river metaphor provides a perspective to delve into Cao Fei’s mind map and discover her aesthetic topology.
Going through the artist’s personal archive brings to light an impressive amount of unpublished textual and visual materials from different phases of the artist’s career: maps, timetables, short stories, sketches, storyboards.They narrate the undercurrents of Cao Fei’s artistic practice and point to recurring themes such as pregnancy and reproduction, referenced in images of eggs or multiplied limbs. The banal lives punctuated by absurdity that people lead in the liminal zones between urban and rural developments, public and private spaces are addressed in works ranging from Cao Fei’s Hip Hop series to her more recent film Haze and Fog. Visual references to the works of Japanese director Terayama Shuji also subtly haunt Cao Fei’s art.
The present publication draws on the metaphoric meaning of rivers – their multiplicity and fluidity – in an attempt to present the artist’s undulating visualization of the cultural undercurrents in her artistic practice. It brings together unpublished short stories, sketches, scripts, and other textual/ visual materials by Cao Fei.