In Cao Fei’s most recent video work, East Wind (2011), a dinky blue Chinese truck with the face of Thomas the Tank Engine beetles around the streets of a Chinese city to the theme tune of the BBC program. The truck stops for petrol, attracting a crowd of delighted fans. It collects rubbish from a demolition site and then merrily takes this to a dump on the outskirts of town (the driver stopping for a pee by the side of the road on the way). With a sense of joyful conquest, the bright smiling face of Thomas charges through the changing Chinese landscape, announcing the triumph of simplicity at every turn.
“When I had my son, I came into contact with all these new DVDs. They gave me this new kind of feeling of innocence,” says Cao Fei. “You can learn a lot about the adult world through children’s culture,” she adds. As is common in Cao’s works, however, the spirit of innocence in East Wind belies the film’s sophistication. Using a nationally manufactured truck for this naively made Thomas (a truck developed by Mao in the 1950s and named East Wind with reference to the proverb “the East Wind will prevail over the West Wind”) and adding its own synthesised version of the theme song, the film is as much about Chinese appropriation of Western culture as it is about Western hegemony.