Cao Fei, digital art and Beijing urban planning

Aggiornamento: 19 feb 2021

Di Rachele Rosina


Cao Fei s a Chinese artist who is transforming the contemporary art scene with her photography, videos and digital art. Born in Guangzhou in 1978, she earned a Bachelor in Fine Art in 2001 from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. In that period, she found in the quickly developing digital world the perfect tool to express her point of view on her surroundings, which were growing at a similar pace.


In 2009, for example, she launched “RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy“, a virtual reality on the online platform “Second Life”. RMB City reimagined the future of the Chinese cities, offering to users from all over the world the opportunity connect and live their virtual life, actively participating in the creation of the artwork itself. It is not a surprise that RMB was born just after the Beijing Olympics 2008, when China showcased the result of an urban planning began many decades before.

MB City: A Second Life City Planning by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei)

“Rumba II: nomad“, a video art by Cao Fei, reflect another aspect of the sudden urban development: the ruins.

The emphasis on ruins as an artistic expression of the urban aesthetic is a prominent feature of the artistic practice and social critic of the Beijing artists’ work, starting from the 1980s. During the ’80s, the Beijing’s urban planning assisted to a sudden boost mainly due to the foreigner founds coming initially from Hong Kong. However, very few restrictions allowed the raise of speculative purposes, that led many of the demolished sites to remain so. This phenomenon kept metropolises like Beijing in state of perpetual destruction, waiting for further developments.

Therefore, the ruins in the Chinese city are very different, for example, from those depicted in the romantic painting of the 19th century in the western tradition. In the West, they were symbols of the classical age, where past and present are in perfect equilibrium. The ruins of metropolises like Beijing, symbolise not the past, but a very present reality. In contrast with the struggle of the human beings agains the strong natural forces that permeates the French and British painting of the 19th century, in the Chinese contemporary art the struggle is that of men against men. However, there is one point in common: disillusionment. While the Romantic artist expressed the disillusionment towards the Enlightenment values of reason, the Chinese artist shows their disillusionment towards the socialist (and pos-socialist) ideas.

The full length video lasts 14 minutes. However, the excerpt available on the artist’s website here analysed is cropped to 3 minutes.

The video begins with a straight-on angle shot of ruins: bricks, cables and other debris fully occupy the scene.

Then the camera moves up showing two hyper modern buildings in the distance. The contrast is sharp. The setting is in fact the former location of the artist’s studio, affected by the recent Beijing urban planning. In the following scene, the full shot depicts two robotic vacuum cleaners entering from the right side of the scene, while at the same time a couple of men riding a motorbike enters from the opposite side. They do not pay attention to the two objects moving towards them, as if they were vehicles or pedestrians walking on the street.

In fact, an everyday-life atmosphere permeates the video: nobody seems affected by the presence of the the robots wondering around like aliens exploring the planet.


ao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad, 00:25. Courtesy of the artist.

The vacuum cleaners are common objects, and we are used to have them and see them casually moving around the rooms cleaning our spaces. In Cao Fei’s video, they are completely decontextualised. They are depicted in abandoned, uninhabited spaces; their wondering around the ruins looks more like a an autonomous, deliberate exploration, while their vacuuming seems like an intentional collecting of evidences, as if they were trying to pick up pieces left behind from the former inhabitants.

The machines are somehow “humanised”: shooting the video from a very low angle, the artist gives us the impression to see the scene from the robots eyes. So while before we were watching (as humans) a machine destroying the building, in another scene we “spy” workers dismantling a roof from the point of view of the vacuum cleaners.



ao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad, 00:40. Courtesy of the artist.

This “humanisation” of the machines and the total indifference of the people protagonist of the video brings us to a different dimension, but at the same time everything seems completely normal. The people’s complete resignation in front of the destruction of the spaces that before were considered, if not private, at least personal, is accompanied by the indifference for the events that could seem absurd or impossible – as alien presence or the robots “will-power”. The artist carries us to a surreal dimension that looks set in the future as a post-apocalyptic city of a science-fiction just survived from an interstellar war.

According to the cultural city theories, a city built in order to encourage people to be creative and curious should look different to the one that wants to be productive: the former people are seen as ideas generator, and thus the key for the production of wealth, while in the latter they are just units of mechanical production. However, the humanisation of machines recreated by Cao Fei in her very present, yet futuristic video art lets us reflect on this point. Are the cultural policies really creating art and culture, or are they just a pretext for the production of goods? What is the role of artists, in a city that destroy their spaces in order to renovate the urban landscape?

From Cao Fei video we might notice the frustration of the artists, who trie to build something new but is blocked by the boundaries imposed by the same government that allowed those spaces to survive few years before, acclaiming the production of culture as stage for displaying the city as global force and international power. In the artist’s eyes, people are just like those machines, wondering around the ruins of their present helplessly.

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