The Walker has recently acquired videos by two remarkable young talents, Mircea Cantor (b. 1977) and Cao Fei (b. 1978). Hailing from Romania and Southern China and living and working in Paris and Beijing, respectively, both Cantor and Cao have become increasingly notable presences at many important art events and museums around the world, although they are still considered early-career artists. Their videos, impressive for their aesthetic accomplishments, are also evidence of practices that promise to grow even more rigorous and challenging in coming years.
Cantor’s nearly three-hour Deeparture (2005) is as severely economical in its setup as it is intense in its poetic potential. It involves two unwitting players, a wolf and a deer, in perhaps the most unlikely and artificial environment in which they can find themselves—a white-cube gallery. The artist shot the animals in 16mm film with a seemingly unforgiving eye, structuring a series of taut close-ups from various angles into a seamlessly looping video. Confounding expectations, the “natural” predator-prey relationship does not play itself out here. Instead, both animals keep their distance from each other and appear in turn tense, confused, exhausted, and dejected, even oblivious. As viewers are gradually roped into emotional engagement with the ultimately unreadable animals, they’re led to wonder if these nonhuman players serve as a blank screen upon which human emotions and psychological attachments are projected.
Cao’s video, in contrast, is highly cinematic, condensing an entire narrative arc—albeit without spoken words—into a mere eight minutes. It is also frenetic and colorful, unlike Cantor’s strict and structuralist piece. In COSPlayers (2004), a group of teenagers in Guangzhou, the artist’s native city, act out an elaborate drama dressed as their favorite martial-arts warrior and assassin characters from animations and computer games. An expanding subcultural phenomenon that originated in Japan, “cosplay” (short for “costume play”) quickly spread to neighboring Asian countries and eventually the rest of the world. Garbed in fantastical getups, the teenagers pose on the top of a building, sprint across a grassy meadow, and stage mayhem on a soccer field, on a riverbank, and in an office building—all against the backdrop of one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in China. The video goes from a series of still portraits to sharply edited action sequences, then comes suddenly to a slow, touching denouement. The morning after a night of virtual battles, the teens return to their everyday lives as the city awakens to another working day.
If Deeparture is powerful because it is an anti-spectacle, the pleasure of COSPlayers derives from its unapologetic spectacle. The two artists indeed come from highly contrasting lineages: while Cantor, a new-generation European conceptualist, looks toward older figures such as Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, Cao seems to have more affinities with transnational popular culture and new Chinese cinema. With interests that range from labor conditions in Eastern Europe to post-communist ideology in contemporary Chinese mega-capitalism, the two artists similarly exhibit an acute awareness of a world in which rapid transformations and remnants of the past constantly collide and mingle. Cantor’s nonnarrative work is a highly complex architectonic of gazes of desire and apprehension, fear and alienation. These emotions and psychic reactions unexpectedly match those found in Cao’s piece.