Cao Yu (artist)

Cao Yu: Daily Life of A Fighter


Interview completed on July 7, 2022

Editor: Emma Lee   Images: provided by the interviewee and Galerie Urs Meile


I don't remember when I began to see Cao Yu's works and activities everywhere. I started to notice the issue of female artists in 2019 when I was inspired by the magazine "The Gentlewoman" founded by Dutchmen Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers in 2010. In addition, Chinese renowned artist Chen Danqing wrote an article "Do You Think Artists are Happy to Put the Word ‘Female’ in front of the Title?”, criticizing the global phenomenon that female artists are still dominated by men. In 2019, the Disney film "Mulan" caused a lot of controversies in China (the focus of the attack: using Chinese culture to promote Western values); feminist cultural critic Dai Jinhua wrote an article "Contemporary Chinese Women May not be as Lucky as Mulan", and brought up the issue of contemporary Chinese women being both "warriors" and "housewives". Of course, there was also the ‘Me Too’ movement then sweeping Western countries, which some celebrities and scholars believed had a post-puritanical and victim-feminist tendency. Cao Yu seems to be the positive face of all of these concerns: she is a fighter, and she never emphasizes her femininity. The Beacon must interview such a brave artist.





Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity? (You revealed some fatalism and mysticism in previous interviews.) What books are you reading lately? What music do you listen to?


A: I don't believe in any so-called “gods” with a human appearance, but I think there is an invisible mechanism behind the dimensions that makes the world work, and that the world is too well designed to be formed by chance.


I have been reading the book "Live", but there is no such book in the world.


I'm listening to オトシマエ (from the soundtrack of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity series) as I answer your questions.



Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?


A: The pandemic has changed my physical journey, but my body did not die, my mind did not stop, and my blood did not flow backwards. How to change the way of working? The way is perception.



Q3: Your works are all related to the body, and some of them also require physical contact with the audience. Can we say that your works explore the proposition of "body liberation"? How do you reflect the political reality and the game between individuals and power in your works? [The Western teaching is that "Everything is about power" and "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you (Pericles)".]


A: If you only see the body – congratulations, you're trapped!


The answer to this question is hidden in my next batch of new creations. Let the result of the thinking orgy speak instead of my silly flesh, because it surely sounds better than me chanting with my own mouth.



Q4: What do you think gives you the courage and ruthlessness to be fearless?


A: In life, we are often afraid, so we strike hard to break it, and that belief is the fire that cannot be extinguished even by the ocean.


Without pain and ruthlessness, how can we feel the essence of life?



Q5: You are a "successful artist". What do you think about the Chinese idea of success? Can your "success" bring inspiration to Chinese women (artists)?


A: Success or failure, it is an illusion.


Success is the science of failure, and it has nothing to do with where you are. Success is the same as empirics, and established experience is precisely the end of possibility. All successes are one-offs and miracles, and miracles cannot be replicated, and some successes have already been dismantled.


If you hope to imitate the so-called "success" of others, it is the same as all the women in the world are plastic copies of Chinese iconic actress Fan Bingbing, where thousands of people use themselves as sacrificial offerings, and become victims of feudalism – I am afraid that this is the most terrible eschatological scenario, because by then you have already taken your soul together to hell, became ashes.


The fact that I am alive itself can be an inspiration to anybody, no matter which gender.



Q6: About Richard Prince’s controversial Instagram-sourced “New Portraits” series, Nate Harrison of the photography site American Suburb X wrote a lengthy investigation titled “How to Sue Richard Prince and Win.” “[In Cariou v. Prince] the court essentially indicated that authorial intent is of lesser concern, because what ultimately yields meaning in a work is that which the reasonable viewer…brings to it." Harrison writes. As an artist, what kind of knowledge structure do you think a "reasonable viewer" should have? Do you mind if your work is misinterpreted? Do you care about interpreting your work for the viewer?


A: The viewer only needs to see and feel with his or her eyes and mind, while the hard and solid structure of knowledge often keeps you away from art.


My works are meant to be read, and misreading is also reading. It is important to inspire thinking, which means I haven’t wasted my time.



Q7: Regarding feminism, do you think political correctness (animal protectionism, race, feminism, etc.) is a cannibalization of human intellect and civilization?


A: Not thinking is a cannibalization of human intellect and civilization, so whether it's political correctness or any other doctrine, if you have an independent mind, nothing can cannibalize you.


A life without thinking is pool of muddy water, and a life of herd-following will eventually dry up without leaving a trace.



Q8: How do you manage to be a mother of two (dealing with mundanity of life) and not to be low (making so-called high art)? In your opinion, is art above or below life?


A: High art at the extreme is low, because if it is out of its true color, it will be "vulgar". Your everyday life shows your true color.


Of course, only art that inspires thought is above life, and pseudo-art is lower than hell. True art can evoke the inner impulse of self-salvation.



Q9: What do you think is the way out for visual arts?


A: The next artist.



Q10: Tell us about your next creative plan?


A: Continuing to make miracles.


Cao Yu's works





Fountain, 2015

Single-channel HD video (color, silent), 11'11''

Edition of 10 + 2 AP


I squeeze both breasts hard and pure white milk jets out into the air, much like a fountain; the full breasts slowly become dry until I empty them. The strong Caravaggio-style exposure blurs the particles, and the pure white milk is clearly visible. A pair of smooth, full breasts become the center of gravity in the picture, like two towering, erupting volcanoes. I turn my milk into the material for the sculpture, and my body becomes the vessel for breeding and ejecting milk. The milk spurting into the air splashes into my eyes with great speed, white as a cloud, and tears come out of my eyes.


In the confrontation with this pain, I come to realize that my body is now full of infinite energy, and for the first time I feel that as a woman. My body can even have a more violent release of tension than a man's, and the milk is engraved with the memory of love and hate. At this moment, the "fountain" is released from my body and naturally come into being. I have realized that this spectacular sight of the human body, more real than any fountain seen in any European square, is the natural masculinity that comes from the female body. The evolution of "fountain", that is, "fountain" to "fountain", continues with history, from the seeds of orthodoxy planted in people's minds by the "Fountain" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres of French Neoclassism, the rebellious urinal "Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp of Dadaism, to Bruce Nauman's self-portrait of a fountain – there has not been a single "fountain" by women of today’s time. It was not until I created an upward, androgynous fountain monument with my own body that it engaged in a fascinating and powerful dialogue with a series of classic works and artists in art history. 11 minutes later, it draws to a close, the full breasts dry up, and beyond the beautiful and painful images come the sorrows of life.




I Just Don't Want You to Live Better Than I Do, 2021, 1/3

Neon sign of variable channels


Edition of 3 + 2 AP




I Have, 2017

Single-channel HD video (color, sound), 4'22"

Edition of 6 + 2 AP




Dragon Head, 2020, 1/3

C-print (image of the artist), metal frame

220x147cm (photo); 232.4x159x7cm (frame)

Edition of 3 + 2 AP




Femme Fatale V, II, IV, 2019, 1/3

C-print, frame


Edition of 3 + 1 AP





Pear of Anguish Flowering, 2020, 1/5

Copper pestle (instrument of torture from ancient times), scepter, stone

Scepter: 111x11cm; stone lion base: 60x81x45cm; overall size: 128x81x45cm Edition of 5 + 2 AP




Nothing Can Ensure that We Will Meet Again, Ice Age - 2014

Umbilical cord of the artist’s son in 2014, mammoth leg bone fossil from Ice Age, crystal resin

Bone: 128x37x27cm; holder: 108x80x40cm; overall size: 120x128x40cm




Everything is Left Behind I - IV, 2018 - 2019

Canvas, fallen long hair (the artist's)





90°C, 2017-2018 (No.2)

Marble, silk stocking





Living, Nothing to Explain, 2017

Leather boots, screw-thread steels






The World is Like This for Now II, 2018

Single long hair (the artist's own), marble

2 pieces, 96x59x50cm, 73x65x30cm







Venus No.1 / No.2, 2012 / 2016

Wooden plinth

110x50x50cm / 171x35x35cm




Undead, 2017

Marble, fresh meat






The Artist is Here, 2017

Single-channel video (color, silent), 126'

Edition of 6 + 2 AP





Mount Fuji No.1, 2017

Electric sex toy, silk sheet

Variable size


17.CY_Yeah,I am Everywhere_2019_a.jpg

17.CY_Yeah,I am Everywhere_2019_d.jpg

Yeah, I am Everywhere I, 2019

Green marble, cast copper with 24k gold-plating

2 pieces, 20x62x42cm, 54x70x40cm



Cao Yu, born in Liaoning in 1988, graduated from the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. She currently lives and works in Beijing. With her unique interdisciplinary practice and sharp and bold artistic language, she has become one of the leading female artists of the new generation and one of the most influential young artists in China. Cao Yu uses her body to push boundaries and speak out clearly and forcefully for herself and the new generation of artists. Her works challenge social norms and ask questions about value and identity in current Chinese society with acts that are both vernacular and performative in nature, offering new interpretations of relevant gender issues in the present.

In 2018, she was the winner of AAC Art China - Young Artist Award, and was nominated for China Art Power List and Best Artist Award of Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA); in addition, she was nominated for Opline Prize (France, 2019), Art 8 – China Young Artist Award (2017), as well as The Gen.T List (2020); in 2022, "Hi Art" published the article "Who are the Most Popular Chinese Female Artists?”, and Cao Yu topped the WeChat index list of Chinese female artists with a significant lead.

Her works have been exhibited in major art institutions both at home and abroad, including: Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; MAK Museum, Vienna, Austria; Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria; Kunstforeningen Gamle Strand, Copenhagen, Denmark; Artspace, Sydney, Australia; Minsheng Art Museum, Beijing; Martina Tauber Fine Art, Munich, Germany; Diskurs, Berlin, Germany; Camera Club, New York, US; Today Art Museum, Beijing, China; etc. Her works have been collected by M+ Collection, Hong Kong; Erlenmeyer Stiftung, Basel, Switzerland; Sishang Art Museum, Beijing; and the Art Museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; etc.