Cao Fei’s video work approaches the contemporary suburban experience as a point of generic reference for her ironic examination of China’s urbanization. The artistic and clearly campy lens carefully observes the boredom of modern life, the outbursts of repressed urges, and the emergence of class distinctions that are a critical perspective on Chinese modernity. Not unlike Charles Baudelaire, who sought to use poetry to capture the contradiction-ridden urbanity of 19th century Paris in stylized, narrative sketches, Fei’s work documents Beijing’s emergence as a preeminent modern city – bits and pieces of Western everyday life become part of and parcel its urban experience. As a result, Beijing and other Asian megacities represent a repetition of the history of modernity, but with a local twist.
Similarly, Chinese modern society, culture, and economics appear to have created new social classes, such as service employees, to whose invisibility Cao Fei draws attention. The artist’s disinterested gaze into the forms that Chinese modern society takes shows how uncanny frustrations, satisfactions, and fears increasingly comprise everyday life.
On the one hand, Cao Fei’s video work traverses the non-places of Chinese modernity that have a generic and international homogeneity, such as shopping malls, fitness centers, and gated communities. She is able to use these spaces as a form of visual anthropology of everyday life that follows Marc Augé’s reflection on the solitude associated with normally disregarded spaces in modern cities.
On the other hand, the artist documents how individuals, such as cleaners, salespeople, and guards, transitorily populating these nondescript spaces come to terms with distinctions that growing economic gaps impose on their relations with others. As the dead hand of capital strengthens its grip on social relations in China, zombies become an uncanny metaphor for the disintegration of erstwhile cultural and social distinctions giving way to hybrid forms of social existence.
By contrast, rather than exploring the syntactic articulation of modernity in China’s urban spaces, Yael Efrati counterpoises in her centerpiece work, evocations of Hebrew angular alphabet, against an abstract representation of sea, which forms the motif of this show. In this exhibition, reality is only present in symbolic, highly stylized forms.
In an effort to escape conventions and sharpen the avant-garde potential of modernism, a figurative painting of an Eastern European woman dressed in ethnic garb is brought into the realm of minimalist sculptures. Cryptic aesthetic gestures, non-functional constructivist sculptures, and self-consciously minimalist objects defy thematic framing as either modernist or postmodernist, but are semiotiocally related to the local Israeli context, such as Arabesque tiles Yael Efrati recollects from her childhood in Haifa.
Thus, while Cao Fei puts the representations of generic everyday life spaces into surreal, titillating and occasionally nostalgic compositions, Yael Efrati decomposes modern, linear perspective into flat non-representative surfaces and enigmatic constructions. She achieves this through utilizing basic elements of artistic expression such as primary colors and lighting effects. In other words, while the process of Chinese modernization can be described as involving social displacement, the displacement of modernism into the Israeli context can be seen as a process of deconstructing and reconstructing Euro-centric terms of aesthetic reference into an artistic perspective on the representation of local reality.