Zombies and the City: In a Tel Aviv Show, Chinese Artist Cao Fei Re-imagines the Urban Apocalypse

Combining beauty and horror, a work by the noted Chinese video artist takes contemporary urban life to extremes.

A scene from 'Haze and Fog.'
Cao Fei / Vitamin Creative Spac

In her first exhibition in Israel, Cao Fei, a 38-year-old video and multimedia artist from Beijing, is showing her lovely, funny and terrifying video work “Haze and Fog” (46 minutes, 2013). It’s an alternative zombie movie, consisting of a mosaic of seemingly unconnected short scenes that gradually coalesce into a coherent plot structure.

The film, which is on view at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, begins in synthetic tranquillity and ends with cannibalistic horror. It’s made up of mise-en-scènes that range from routine actions to performances of gestures and dance, constructed like a sequence of trailers. Most of the people we see are solitary figures set against vistas of an empty, silent city, alienating and backdrop-like, the interactions between the humans and the urban space theatrical but voided of their symbolism.

A man in a wheelchair throws crumbs to a ruined stone fountain in the center of an urban park. Real estate agents in blue pants and white shirts execute a vigorous dance in a portico outside an office building in what looks like a planned break for physical exercise. A man is practicing cricket in an apartment through whose windows a city of bland buildings looms, and his pregnant wife starts to scream as a window cleaner emerges into the frame from the outside, creating an impossible trio of self-absorbed people. A cleaning woman in a pink uniform tries on high heels that were left next to the door in the corridor of an apartment building, and steals them. In the same corridor, a messenger (in a yellow uniform) drops a package and shatters a watermelon. A woman in a nurse’s uniform whips a bound man lethargically. A sex worker puts on a policewoman’s uniform on an emergency staircase and then dances on a living-room table before her clients, who are watching television.

Amid the lyricism, the gentleness and the slowness, they become spasmodic creatures of nightmares, zombies wearing tatters and dripping blood as they hop threateningly ahead, arms stretched forward. They go down on all fours and eat human cadavers in the lobby of an apartment building. They’ve already attacked the supermarket, and now the messenger is kissing a girl who has burst out of a box, but they are munching on each other’s faces like chewing gum. The sex worker is chewing an arm indifferently.

The film ends with a broad pan of an abandoned field strewn with scaffolding of buildings (pagodas and modernist rectangles alike) in which people eat people with the same apathetic inertia that they applied to their earlier actions.

It gradually emerges that some of the characters make return appearances in the film. They don’t talk, only perform actions with a diminished level of energy, each immersed in his activity as though tranquilized or hypnotized, their actions somehow accumulating personality and character. There are also recurring incidents: falls and accidents, private dancing and singing performances.

A scene from 'Haze and Fog.'
Cao Fei / Vitamin Creative Spac

All is suffused with indifference, grogginess, purposelessness. The result is tremendous beauty, but Cao Fei’s puppet-like protagonists don’t see it, don’t perceive that they are the subjects who are creating it or are included within it. The beauty is not moving and does not infuse meaning; the characters pass through it into the next scene, another gesture, which also generates a moment of aesthetic purity, and so on. The hidden element that seems to connect all these disconnected actions is desire – namely, its absence. It appears in its faded version, comparable to vague or planted memory, a kind of ridiculous spasm, an attenuated, shell-like version of what once was, or was meant to be, a trenchant reason for existence. In practice, there is an absurd parade of movements in a space. Effectively, it is desire as a zombie.

A withering, consuming force

The colors in the video work are deliberately washed out and dull; everything is as though covered with smog, filthy, in an invisible layer. The locations are depressing in the anonymity of their dense tenements, their architecture of concrete that lacks signs of life, a futuristic void portending disaster. The occurrences are accompanied by sentimental music, which imposes a last-tango quality on them. It’s a show of surrealistic character amid the atmosphere of a persistent nightmare.

For example, the scene in which a real estate agent armed with a directional sign in the shape of a pointing finger sits down to eat in an inexpensive restaurant. The sign leans on the chair next to him, pointing upward; in the background is a flickering but soundless television, a beggar woman makes the round of the tables, playing a harmonica opposite a mirror. There is seeming narrative logic here, but at the same time it is a hyper-realistic image whose power resides in its bizarre beauty. Extraordinarily human moments of mundane life confront a nameless withering, consuming force that annihilates them.

The tenements are filmed in a dreamlike manner. They possess a demonic dimension, as though subject to a magic force. Cao Fei calls these realms “magical metropolises.” “The concrete forms given through the architecture echo a kind of paradoxical contrast to themselves and the focus blurs in and out between the real and virtual world,” she said in a recent interview.

Her protagonists are framed by architecture; their actions are nourished and influenced by their surroundings, by the grim boredom she inflicts on them, by the possibilities and hurdles that the totally engineered and synthesized interior design confronts them with (such as the man whose walker gets stuck in the gaps of the wooden bridge he’s crossing). Even when there is a group of people together they create only an imaginary community, a sort of accumulation of service providers and suppliers in the same space, but without a common goal, past or future.

A scene from 'Haze and Fog.'
Cao Fei / Vitamin Creative Spac

The film offers an interpretation of the modern genre of zombie movies, the exhibition’s curator, Sergio Edelsztein, notes. However, in contrast to canonical horror movies, “Haze and Fog” arouses empathy with beings whom we experience as products of the “modern megalopolis.” We understand the isolation, obsessiveness and indifference these beings embody, their lack of sensuality and of pleasure, he continues, but above all the deep alienation spawned by the dystopian reality and the new social structures which these architectural complexes represent and create. In her work, Cao Fei, who belongs to the new generation of Chinese artists, deals critically with the accelerating changes in her society. She draws on its popular culture and on its aesthetics, the rapid urbanization and loss of tradition. In this key work of her oeuvre she also addresses borrowed cultural terms. As the concept of the zombie with its cultural baggage does not exist in Chinese culture and tradition, it is understood and constructed through Western representations of the “walking dead.”

Cao Fei “takes on the zombie film genre, but unlike traditional western representations, here the zombies represent the death of the soul,” writes the Indian art critic Kriti Bajaj. “The mundane day-to-day life of Beijing’s citizens finds expression in meaningless mechanical tasks, isolation and emotional vacuum, portraying ordinary people as mere steps away from turning into the zombies that also populate the city.”

In an article titled “Disconnection, Apathy and Chopped Fingers,” Dr. Xavier Aldana Reyes, from the University of Manchester, describes zombies not as an element of horror, and not only as metaphorical representations of the blurred boundaries between “life” and “death” and of the meaning of these terms, but also as a gesture of culture crossing. The normality that Cao Fei accords the bleeding and cannibalistic presence of the zombies in the film presents them as a wild exaggeration of what is already taking place in the contemporary city, which is populated by insensitive, apathetic people in ghostly structures (actual and social). There is no attack by zombies from outside, no appalling transformation occurs between the “living” and the “unloving,” but a slide into a condition. The mechanical activity of bodily spasms, turnover of liquids, dissolution and smearing of organs imitate sensual pleasure, but without it. The human being, having deteriorated to a level at which he is identified by his uniform, whose activity in the world is robotic and without desire, eats himself.

“Haze and Fog” is on view at the Center for Contemporary Art, 2A Tzadok Hacohen St. (next to 5 Kalischer St.), Tel Aviv; Mon.-Thurs. 2-7, Fri.-Sat. 10-2; until May 14