Legend has it that leading up to the International Center of Photography’s 2009 triennial, 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 she wasn’t responding to emails. At the time, the Beijing-based artist 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, its dense cyberpunk infrastructure accentuated by floating monuments: a gigantic Panda aerocraft, an 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 gave the illusion of a futuristic utopia, a metaverse. Looking closer, however, one realized that this world was not so otherworldly. In was, in fact, a most accurate expression of China’s schizophrenic contemporaneity, precarious and fabulous, simultaneously at the threshold of prosperity and collapse. It was rather like a documentary.
Real-life anxieties and collective fascination with eschatological imaginations
Time and again, Cao Fei has stressed and exploited this blurred property of speculative realities, applying a documentary impulse to self-constructed platforms. More than a commentator or reference maker, she is a world-builder, a dramaturg of situations. Merging elements of documentary and performance, Cao’s 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. As each work confirms, such worlds often reveal deeper truths, even without the devices of realism. Cao’s apparent 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. Her 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. For art and living alike, it seems, hybrid realities provide an expanded agency that renders the concept of boundary inoperative, unexciting, obsolete.
In presenting an unhinged synthesis of contexts, Cao Fei’s works are informed as much by real-life anxieties like pollution and quotidian malaise as they are by a collective, morbid fascination with eschatological imaginations, as reflected in recent Hollywood blockbusters of dystopian futures and hit TV shows like The Walking Dead. The zombie genre creeped its way into both 2013’s Haze and Fog and 2014’s La Town. There is something to be said about creative efforts invested in sensationalizing the end of the world. In recent years, post-apocalyptic programs and games have become 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? For Cao Fei (China Tracy), it seems, existential transience lends itself not only to fatalism, but also to a multiplicity of both lived and imagined experiences: “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.”
(Chinese, b. 1978)
is an artist who lives
and works in Beijing. She is represented by Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.
Cao Fei’s first
solo show in the U.S.
is on view at Moma PS1 through 29 August.
Her work is also featured in the LIT section of the 9th Berlin Biennale, on view through 18 September.
Xin Wang is a New York-based curator and researcher. She is Associate Editor of KALEIDOSCOPE Asia.
This is an excerpt from Wang's essay published in the third issue of KALEIDOSCOPE Asia, our new sister publication dedicated to contemporary art and culture from the Asia-Pacific region. For information visit www.kaleidoscope.media/asia.