Whose Utopia – by Cao Fei

This summer adventure has taken me to Malmö city, Sweden where, as always, I managed to carve some time out of a busy tourist’s schedule and spending quality time with family to visit The Museum of Modern Art (Moderna Museet, Malmö).

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Moderna Museet Malmö, Sweden

The space, although modest, was filled to the brim with some unique displays of modern art as well as contemporary exhibits curated in various spaces throughout the gallery; defining each space and allowing every piece to claim its personal aura while comfortably conveying each artist’s message without rubbing elbows too closely with the piece next door. Although many of the artists represented were indeed Swedish, many pieces on display were representative of artists from across the globe.

While exploring the smaller galleries of the museum, I came across a multi-media installation that spread itself across 3 rooms. The piece was titled: Whose Utopia: My Future is not a Dream, What are you doing here? The piece was conceptualised in 2006 by Cao Fei; who lives and works in Beijing.

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Whose Utopia – Room one of tryptic multimedia installation

Whose Utopia follows young workers on an OSRAM light bulb factory plant/shipment whose aspirations and dreams of the future are revealed to the artist as he accompanies them on their journey. The company is one of many that have established themselves in China’s Pearl River Delta.

The video footage, film stills and products that are installed in 3 joined gallery spaces tell a story of questioning ones identity, fighting for a future and questioning that very fight. The way in which the piece unfolds is a direct reflection of the title itself. A multimedia triptych telling the tale of several young individuals on their way to making their mark in the world.

I found this piece extremely powerful in a sense that Fei was really able to portray each young worker as an individual. Each person depicted has been taken out of the collective working whole and given a platform to show the world who he/she really is. It is the marriage of rapidly growing industry and young, able workers that has created a different kind of melting pot. One that places youth in a space where productivity is key and individual aspirations are easily quelled in mid-stride. Despite that, these young workers haven’t allowed their dreams to fade. Through the documentation of this journey, Fei has shown their individual, as well as their collective, resilience and drive to achieve.

The first room focuses more on the journey the question “Whose Utopia” is questioned as OSRAM sets its distribution targets and spreading its empire with the help of their employees who have their own utopia in mind as they set to work.

The second room/triptych has been dedicated to highlight the talents, dreams and aspirations of the individuals working at OSRAM whose journeys have just started and who have chosen to use OSRAM as a stepping-stone to achieve their own goals.

The third and final room of the piece is where the depiction of disappointment, homesickness and the loss of hope unfold. It’s clear that each individual continuously contributes to an industry as a collective whole although they have no genuine interest in the industry itself. Sadly, most of us have fallen victim to this putting us in a space of deep stress and doubt that we’ve all experienced as we each continue to follow our own life’s journeys and struggles. A space where everyone has questioned his/her own ability, worth and place in the world in which we live in.

It is the juxtaposition of industry and individual persistence that I found so appealing about this installation. In this piece, Fei has very successfully broken down barriers and has made his viewers see themselves following a very similar emotional journey as someone whom the viewer has never met. In this way, he has created a dialogue in which a window has been open for the viewer to relate to and to see another person as one would see oneself engaged in the daily struggle to succeed in a dog-eat-dog world.

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