Cao Fei’s film ‘Whose Utopia?’ is not new, made in 2006 it does however make a new impact on its new context, screened in a darkened space at the heart of Tate Modern’s ‘Poetry & Dream’ department which features many, mostly male practitioners of Surrealist painting.
Cao Fei is neither male nor a Surrealist, nor does she emerge from European history of art but is one of the best known of the recent wave of Chinese artists impacting on the world art stage since the start of this century.
You’ve seen a lot of art this week, Modernism, Postmodernism and Contemporary Art as you continue, and bring to a close your Summer School while touring London’s museums and galleries with a host of students, but when it comes to Blogging time it’s Cao Fei’s film that stands-out strongly and clearly in your mind as deserving your attention and your (approximately) 750 words.
‘Whose Utopia?’ is filmed entirely on location in a Chinese ‘OSRAM’ lighting factory. It is about 15 minutes long and comes in three short chapters. The first features a collage of almost abstract, close-up scenes of the factory’s machines as they go about their robotic, repetitive, but somehow strangely beautiful and uncanny actions.
In the second chapter an element of fantasy is injected into the apparent drudgery of the factory-hands’ working lives as a fully costumed ballet dancer (who may be one of the workers) goes incongruously through her moves in the grimy factory space, then joins the workers on the production line.
We also get glimpses of another man, dressed like just any other middle-aged operative (again, perhaps he is one) but able to perform sophisticated dance moves, like a squid filmed in slow motion.
Other factory-hands (this time we feel more certain that it is they) stand silently play electric guitars as if they have brought their weekend dreams of rock stardom into the workplace.
In the final chapter of the film, factory chosen operatives freeze amid the action around them and stare-out the video camera as if they had been turned to still or stone images in a world that carries on without their participation.
The film’s title ‘Whose Utopia?’ of course alludes to the discrepancy between the lives of those who produce ‘first world’ goods (here exampled by an enormous variety of different kinds of lighting), and those who consume them.
As the Surrealists were very aware the fact that everyone dreams makes dreaming a potentially revolutionary site, wherein society might be transformed even if our material conditions remain the same. Every school child whose free heart and mind is shackled to a formal education and an exam desk, nevertheless continues to dream, every factory-hand or labourer, every slave and servant bound to an ignominious task and often also tied to their poor, company housing (like those who died in their ‘dormitories’ in this week’s huge factory explosion in China) nevertheless dreams.
But many in the world of course live their dreams and even greatly exceed them. Discrepancies between the richest and poorest have never ben greater and economic policies are designed only to increase this trajectory. Meanwhile so many more see their entire lives stolen from them by the sheer necessity of survival forced upon them by global inequality, ‘growth,’ ‘profitability’ and ‘productivity’, and by the myopic, short-sighted capitalist economy focused on monopoly, greed and excess with which we are still burdened.
There is no rule against owning several homes, or millions of pounds more than you need to live a decent life. But there is also no rule that says everyone should be able to attain simple, basic housing, diet, healthcare and education, or respite from daily fear of losing any and all of this.
As we well know the rich just get richer and richer, more and more aloof and out of touch with reality. Yes, they certainly ‘live the dream’ or live ‘in dreamland.’ Wealth gives power, and power also begets more power, closing out those with dreams and aspirations but, powerless, cannot be heard, rewarded or recognised. Greed means that very little, certainly not enough to make significant change ever ‘trickles down’ as the rich, occasionally scratching their itching conscience, assume and sometimes promise.
Human nature –of the rich, thus corrupted by their wealth- thus appears devastatingly disappointing, requiring us to look elsewhere for hope and redemption. Perhaps we can find it by considering the meek, the weak, the unprotected and vulnerable, those pictured in Cao Fei’s film perhaps and also famously celebrated in a well-known preacher named Christ’s best known sermon.
It’s not, after all, in the world’s often individuated ‘achievers,’ people who, on closer inspection, are so-often, so relatively privileged, from cradle to grave, graced with opportunities and connections, eased through open doors and oiled with appropriate funds where and when necessary, but in the drained and deadened eyes, the often suicidal psychologies (see the grim tales of China’s Apple technology factories) and in the hope-deserted hearts of millions of people like those in Caio Fei’s film, that we should perhaps look for the inspiration, redemption, heroism we need and want to believe exists somewhere within humanity.
Perhaps these are the people who deserve our monuments and applause, those people, the world over, who carry out endless meaningful tasks in despondence-inducing environments. They too have their dreams, and they too are, unarguably as valuable as every other human, every other life.
So how is it then, that in the 21st century, with technology that now enables almost instant awareness of one another’s plight, that we still live with these criminal imbalances, inequalities, injustices, as one percentage of our shared world benefit from the effective enslavement and abuse of so many others?
Of course Cao Fei’s work is political art and not just politics, and so she has to be applauded for her craft, her choices, her invention and imagination. The light factory being perhaps the most important choice of all. That ‘light,’ so long a metaphor of holiness, virtue, hope and noble morality also asserts itself here as fundamental to modernity, an electric light bulb being a relatively simple technology that makes the fears and evils of the night recede and thus allows modern mankind to feel mastery over nature, transforming our environment with a simple gesture of the hand.
In Cao Fei’s film, not only the various processes and procedures but the bulbs themselves sometimes appear strangely beautiful despite the regular appearance of ghostly white liquid gas that oozes into variously shaped glass forms.
Soon these bulbs will travel to ‘dream homes’ illuminating ‘dream kitchens’, variably dimmed or dressed in a variety of cool fittings and stylish shades to ensure the perfect tone required by any customer striving to emulate an effect recently seen in a magazine or soap opera.
In Cao Fei’s film, sweet, naive sounding pop music eaks- and creaks-out one or two thin, slightly melancholic and mechanical emotions, adding to the beguiling atmosphere of the piece. But no-one ever smiles (as far as you recall) and the film ends with a row of young male factory-hands wearing a sequence of T-Shirts, each printed with a Chinese symbol. Together (the translating subtitles inform you) they spell the (apparently well-known in China) slogan ‘MY FUTURE IS NOT A DREAM.’
It sounds optimistic, a good way to end despite everything else the film has allowed you to see, think and feel. The boys look resolute, and one even has his thumbs turned back as if to signal positivity. But when you discuss this finale with your young Chinese students they, devastatingly, inform you, and their non-Chinese peers, that this slogan is used here, and used commonly elsewhere in China, only ironically, and that in fact it really means the opposite of what it seems to say.
If so, the final frames of the film become, not a symbol of unity, hope and defiance but a secreted and coded cry, sent out from the Chinese factory floor to the heart of the rich West (here, at TATE Modern where millions of bourgeois tourists mingle and mooch in this magnificent bastion of the art world) to please, please help.