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Best known for a Second Life-based speculative reality created in the heyday of virtual communities, Chinese artist Cao Fei intertwines dreamscapes, real-life anxieties, urban legends and eschatological imaginations to express a schizophrenic present at the threshold of prosperity and collapse.
New orders are born, so is new, strange wisdom
—China Tracy, RMB City Manifesto
Legend has it that leading up to the International Center of Photography’s triennial in 2009, curators at the New York-based institution had to deploy avatars in Second Life (SL) to find Cao Fei—under the guise of “China Tracy”—at her regular hangouts, because the artist wasn’t responding to emails. At the time, she was installing billboards in RMB City, a sprawling metropolis built and launched within the virtual platform a few months earlier. The city was quite a vision: if Super Mario Galaxy had a level inspired by contemporary China, this hard-boiled wonderland would be it. The density of its cyberpunk infrastructure is further accentuated by monuments that float and heave: a gigantic Panda aerocraft, the OMA-designed CCTV Headquarters in all its glorious topological intrigue, a bright orange construction hat the size of an opera house, the Tiananmen façade presiding over an elevated waterfall, a loaded missile launch dock. At first glance, it may very well give the illusion of a futuristic utopia, a metaverse. Looking harder, however, you realize that this world is not that otherworldly. In fact, it is perhaps a most accurate expression of China’s schizophrenic contemporaneity, precarious and fabulous, simultaneously at the threshold of prosperity and collapse; a place where Mao, Marx and a Lehman brother were literally in dialogue (People’s Limbo (2009)). It is rather like a documentary.
Time and again, Cao Fei intuitively understands and exploits that property of speculative realities. Back in 2006, having just signed up for SL, she created China Tracy—a distinctly manga-esque beauty whose style can perhaps be best summed up as cyborg-meets-Chun-Li from the Street Fighter game franchise—and began exploring. It was the heyday of virtual communities, and people experimented with identity and anonymity with a degree of freedom that has long-since faded. Unlike multiplayer role-playing games that come fully designed and constructed, SL endows its members with the agency to build and shape their shared virtual space, where they may encounter each other in social contexts yet to be defined. “I am looking for something, I think. But I don’t know what,” as “Hug Yue,” avatar of a 65-year-old man from San Francisco, put it. He would gone on to have a series of candid and sometimes charmingly naïve exchanges about the “digital world” with China Tracy; their exchanges would become the subject of i.Mirror (2007), a work acknowledged by Cao Fei as a “documentary” in the opening credits, and one of the artist’s most romantic.
The documentary objective back then seemed to be capturing a particular existential, even angsty moment for the artist and the medium she explored. Looking at it now, however, another narrative emerges. You notice, for instance, how angular and shoddy the 3-D modeling is, to the extent that they induce nostalgia in their outdated aesthetic propositions, like Soviet futurist projects that were intended for a future in which they’d become obsolete (or a momentary Internet wonder). You also realize that this virtual world was just as material—bankrolled by real capital and displayed in institutional settings—and timely as its mediating platform. People’s Limbo responded to a sea change in the real world, in real time, though shrapnel of the past also lingers around. In i.Mirror, as you observe China Tracy interacting with other avatars in SL’s posh clubs, you realize how notions of connectivity and intimacy in cyberspace have since been revolutionized. Girl meets world, boy meets girl, a generation grows and transforms with a particular socio-technological experience: how could it not be romantic?
I suspect that Cao Fei’s upcoming retrospective at MoMA PS1 will almost have an interesting media archeology subplot that manifests itself in the chronology of her creative output, from the MTV aesthetics of her early videos to gritty DV features like Nu (2006), from her experimentally edited, research-based exploration of urbanization ruptures in San Yuan Li (2003) to the survival horror- and zombie apocalypse-informed cinema of Haze and Fog (2013). Her light show Same Old, Brand New (2015), commissioned for the iconic ICC Building in Hong Kong, featured 8-bit characters from classics such as Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man scaling the verticality of the landmark. Then there are the manifestos, short fictions and tarot cards. This promiscuous approach to medium and format, as well as her sensitivity to their specificities, is telling of the embedded perspective from which Cao Fei has always worked, and of her personal history, entangled early on with popular culture and new media.
Cao Fei was born in 1978 in Guangzhou, a prominent urban center in the Pearl River Delta region located in south China. The strategic significance of its location meant sufficient distance from the political centers in the north, where ideological control is considerably tighter, and proximity to Hong Kong, where a confluence of popular culture from Japan, the U.S. and Hong Kong itself steadily funneled through in the forms of manga, MTV hits, soap operas and variety shows sometimes sprinkled with political satire. In the beginning of Cao Fei’s career, this dynamic exposure allowed her to operate largely independent of the dominant art discourses within China—or elsewhere, for that matter. There’s little evidence in her early works, for instance, of the theory-frenzied legacy of ’85 New Wave or other nascent avant-garde practices further inland, while her sense of humor also set her apart from those artists who chose to respond to the region’s unique phenomena of urbanization. She wasn’t ignorant of these precedents, given her father’s status as a famous sculptor and her own pedigree at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art (BFA, 2001). But her comfort with deploying popular culture tropes in her works—and her often fun and meaningful engagement with them—testifies to the importance of that early immersion. They democratized the high and low in a rather fundamental way, allowing her to create as she lived, as she breathed.
After all, more than a commentator or reference maker, Cao Fei is a world-builder, a dramaturg of situations; her approach echoes those of the architects in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Inception (2010), who project their reality and imagination simultaneously into the infrastructure of a dreamscape, melding idiosyncratic touches, emotions, personal histories, trauma. Such worlds often reveal deeper truths, even without the devices of realism. For Cao Fei, the design needn’t be as elaborate as the RMB city or La Town (2014), a fictional city of love and tragedy, meticulously constructed with figurines and miniature landscaping. In Public Space—Give Me a Kiss (2002), she paired a catchy 1950s love song with footage of a middle-aged man spontaneously dancing on the sidewalk, edited to appear as if he was moving to the beat and enacting the solicitation of kisses through expressive gestures. One finds similar episodes enacted by assembly line workers at an Osram (a Munich-based lighting manufacturer) facility in Foshan, Guangdong, where Cao Fei spent six months learning about their lives, aspirations and interpretations of utopia. Whose Utopia (2006) became an unusual record of these workers, “documenting” both their daily routines and fantasies—enacted with their own choices of costume and music—superimposed within the same space of labor. The work was quite a departure from the clichéd assembly line porn (as analogous to poverty porn) that similarly attempts to address the spectacle and grind of China’s unique neoliberal condition.
Cao Fei’s ease in navigating multiple worlds—or rather, her insistence upon it—is symptomatic not only of a generation that regularly inhabits hybrid cultural spheres, but also indicative of an observant artist who has always tuned in to the shifting sites of cultural production in contemporary life. She is the type of artist for whom art for its own sake isn’t necessarily insufficient, but is no longer adequate. For art and living alike, hybrid realities provide an expanded agency that renders the concept of boundary inoperative, unexciting. The existential throes of the cosplayers in her eponymous docudrama from 2004 fall on a spectrum of scenarios: among surreal props, in the public space, at home and at odds with their upbringing. They become a kind of urban legend that encapsulates the restless energy of youth culture at a particular moment, in the same way the zombies in Haze and Fog convey a certain post-apocalyptic sensibility. Cao Fei’s urban legends often present an unhinged synthesis of contexts. Haze and Fog, for instance, was as much informed by real life anxieties—heavy pollution and the brutality of the quotidian—as it was by a collective, morbid fascination with eschatological imaginations, as reflected in Hollywood blockbusters of dystopian futures and hit TV shows like The Walking Dead. The sense that our world is charged with post-apocalyptic potential is so palpable in Haze and Fog that when the zombies finally appear at the end, they serve as a king of comic relief.
There is something to be said about creative efforts invested in sensationalizing the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic games are becoming astoundingly convincing and awe-inspiring in the way they visualize the fall of civilization. But what does it mean for a world-builder to build one that’s on the verge of collapse? When Cao Fei was filming La Town, its stop-motion animation tinged with eschatological romanticism, she took days building and destroying miniature landscapes, stylizing buildings and tiny figurines, creating narratives with inanimate objects. It was, by her own account, one of her most challenging projects. There’s plenty to infer from the backstory that La Town had been dislocated through a wormhole, from the background dialogues excerpted and adapted from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) to the surreal visions of a giant bloodied octopus, empty platforms submerged in water, and a Harmony high-speed train as a museum object. The ultimate demise of La Town was its being accessioned into a museum, with all that had happened and existed before. Cao Fei was particularly satisfied with this ending, as it “makes it fun and relatable to contemporary art practices, to our neatly categorized lives…it also symbolizes our relationship with museums and with real suffering. Everything that has come before can be subject to consumerism, or a certain kind of consumerism.” Could La Town be a reincarnation of RMB city, or a manifestation of it in a different temporality? China Tracy may have acknowledged this as much: “Our world… is constructed with ‘transparency’ and ‘imagination.’ Does it exist? It may not. Even if it exists now, it won’t in the future. It could end after our visit, and start over again when we return.”
Cao Fei (Chinese, b. 1978) is an artist who lives and works in Beijing. She is represented by Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.
Her solo show “Haze and Fog” is currently on view at The Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, through 14 May, and her project “The Time is Out of Joint” is on view at Sharjah Art Foundation through 12 June. Her first solo show in the U.S. will be held at Moma PS1 from 3 April–29 August. Cao Fei is the chosen artist, along with John Baldessari, of BMW Art Car Series 2015.
Xin Wang is a New York-based curator and researcher. She is currently building a discursive archive of Asian futurisms in contemporary art practice.
Images: Cao Fei (SL avatar: China Tracy); Creamy Role, “Fresh” series, 2002; Nada at Home, “Cosplayers” series, 2004; Vest with Suspenders, “Storage Box” series, 2001.
Portrait photography by Timothy Guo.