Nov 1, 2011

EXHIBITION | Shadow Life by Cao Fei


Cao Fei, Transmigration, Shadow puppetry


I have had two experiences with shadow puppets. The first was during an electricity breach from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Because Zelda: Ocarina of Time was completely inaccessible, hand puppets set against the backdrop of a Yankee candle was a fair (but more boring) alternative. The second experience occurred my first night in my first apartment in 2010. With everything still in storage and absolutely no upper body strength to relocate the bulk of my possessions, my small and bare living area was void of furniture, books, or Zelda: Twilight Princess. However, I had a small lamp that granted some pathetic attempts at shadow puppets along my bedroom wall.


Given this limited knowledge, I found myself entering Cao Fei’s Shadow Life exhibit at the Arthouse in Austin, Texas with—honestly-- a low expectation rate. From the small blurb on Arthouse’s website, I wasn’t exactly eager to experience some social and political commentary over contemporary China via shadow hand puppet.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard some upbeat music from a small, dark room in the back of the Arthouse. The perimeter of the Arthouse is made up of glass walls, so the museum overall is magnificently lit from the outside. People walking on South Congress would create shadows across the walls inside, reminding me of the reason I was there to begin with. Upon entering the area emanating with such lively music, I noticed a bare room with limited seating and a screen playing three separate videos on loop. I enjoyed the emptiness of the setting because it reminded me of that first night in my bare apartment. It also made me think about the general context of something like shadow puppetry. From my experience, it isn’t the sort of activity that transpires when there is anything else to do. Without any distractions around, the viewer is transfixed on the screen.

Each segment, “A Rock,” “Dictator,” and “Transmigration” were fancifully displayed. The puppets themselves were intricate, and I spent most of my time during the exhibit wondering the exact hand pattern to create figures like elephants and hummingbirds. However, the childlike quirky effects on the surface were partnered with some interesting social commentary that wasn’t unique to China as the website suggested.

Cao Fei, Transmigration, shadow puppetry


For instance, shadow puppets of various animals in “Transmigration” constantly run away from bulldozers and urban landscapes trying to find a new place to live. There’s a parallel between the forest animals and a pair of travelers also escaping the urbanization surrounding them. At the end of the three-minute clip, the shadows of both the travelers and the animals are reunited in a wooded area free of any sign of industrialization.

I enjoyed Fei’s message of returning back to a more simplified way of life seen in “Transmigration.” I also wondered about the universality of such a theme here in Austin, Texas from an exhibit adhering to contemporary China. However, after watching the sequence of videos a couple more times I was simply happy to be apart of Fei’s visually whimsical display. The experience overall was, in a word, refreshing. Fei’s shadow puppetry didn’t need any gimmicks or excessive panache to make the viewer pay attention. Merely a simple room and a single screen brought forth a sense of nostalgia and fascination within me. By creating such lovely and captivating shadows in Shadow Life, Fei’s exhibition ironically brings universal themes to light. 

-Meagan McLendon

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