Cao Fei: Love Your Avatar
She grew up in a region of China dominated by rapid social and economic change; in her videos and installations, Cao Fei combines the influences of a global post-pop culture with traditional elements from opera and theater. Her work superimposes reality, fiction, history, and the present day. For her latest projects on the Internet platform "Second Life," Fei created a virtual city and embarked on a search for a romantic partner with her avatar China Tracy. In early 2010, she will present a video work in the exhibition "Utopia Matters." Matthew Evans introduces Fei and her works from the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||When the 16th-century English writer and courtier Sir Philip Sidney described the poet's imagination as "not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that [they] build Castles in the aire [sic]," he was not only coining a now-popular idiom ("to build castles in the air"), but also (and more importantly) demonstrating both the power and shortcoming of imagination: when it takes form, it indeed creates majesty, but in this very articulation, it becomes "not wholly" itself, a diminutive of its original splendor. Such is the incongruous breaking point between creative fabrication and reality, and an apt passage into the work of multi-media artist Cao Fei.
Beijing-based Fei is concerned with the world we inhabit just as much as she is with another, imagined one, however substantiated it is by the flaws of history and our fragile emotional constitutions. For her recent work RMB City (2007–2009), she has constructed a computer-generated virtual city, titled after the Chinese currency renminbi, or the Chinese yuan, in the parallel world of Second Life. It is a delirious combination of revisions of iconic Chinese architecture (here, Tiananmen Square is inundated with the Three Gorges Reservoir and the CCTV tower dangles feebly from a crane), a Mad Max-punk mise-en-scène, and laughable readymades (a giant hovering panda bear marks one of the city's highest points—RMB's equivalent to New York's Chrysler Building, or London's 30 St Mary Axe). Based on the Chinese dramatic form Yan Ban Xi (Eight model plays), which was popular during the Cultural Revolution, RMB is a mixture of propaganda, theater, ballet, and 3D animation that proposes a full-on life analogous to, but different from, our own. Fei's works from the Deutsche Bank Collection show us how this looks: her virtual alter ego series RMB City: The Fashions of China Tracy introduces new designer fashions by avant-garde stars like Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan in highly surreal cityscapes. However, while Fei's civilization is doubtlessly a fantasy bolstered by the utopian promises of the Internet, it operates under real economic terms: RMB City's inhabitants will be merely virtual avatars (or alter egos) of Second Life players, but the city's unrealistic real estate will be (and has been) sold for actual money—the consumerist ruse of all Second Life development, and only one of many so-called "reality checks" affixed to Fei's projects of dizzying figmentation.
Fei is a key protagonist in a culture and generation that was force-fed the contradictions of the urban and financial proliferation of post-1989 China. The daughter of an "official" artist of the State, Fei was born in Guangzhou in 1978 and grew up in South China's Pearl River Delta region, which has become one of the world's largest hosts to urban sprawl and amphetamine-inspirited manufacturing development. It is also, historically, China's most porous region, being a common access point for trade with the West: Guangzhou, at one point called Canton, was the epicenter of the Opium Wars, and counts both Hong Kong and Macau as its westernized neighbors, compelling curator Hou Hanru to define it as a "kind of alternative country within the large Chinese empire that constantly plays the role of a double agent: the 'betrayer' and pioneer of the National cause." Imbued with cultural hybridity, Guangzhou taught Fei the flexibility needed for growing up in and communicating a scenario both beatified and haunted by the possibility for another social and economic reality—a scenario that has generated a certain alienation that is not only particular to southern China, but that is also, as Fei once stated, an "urgent reality … of the effects of globalization in [all] developing countries."
This "urgency," however, would not yield as deep an impact on Fei's work if it were only imparted in gross overstatements about the contradictions of her culture—Communist and capitalist, nationalized and globalized, economic epicenter and impoverished badlands. It is more her investigation into the shifting nature of identity within this cultural framework that conveys the raw, and often jocose, mannerism of her work. Fei's 2005 video Father is a distinctly biographical example of this, and a sort of ample entryway into the artist's oeuvre. In December 2004, Fei's father Cao Fhong'en, who, in Fei's words, is "an 'old' official sculptor who worked for many years in the style of Socialist Realism," was commissioned to make a six-meter-high bronze sculpture of the late Deng Xiaoping, a Communist Party politician and reformer for China's runaway into the global market economy. "China's traditional view," Fei continues, "is that the son must inherit the Father's business … However, I never considered such an idea." As a kind of cathartic testimonial for her generation's departure from traditional media and State-allegiant subject matter, Fei documented her father's creation of the bronze memorial. One scene depicts a statesman telling Fhong'en that "your [work] belongs not only to China, but to the world." Fei's father laughs, making the viewer wonder whether this is a clumsy expression of gratitude or a hysterical acknowledgement that this statesman is wrong, and that he would be less misguided if he were to say those same words to Fei, who is behind the camera.
Fei once said of the work: "[It] contrasts my family history with the history of our nation … Looking for history is the process of looking for oneself, as well as searching for an answer to the questions of our time." Although much of Fei's work is considered constitutive of China's "new media, mobile" generation, sometimes referred to as "New New Human Beings" (Hou Hanru) because of its propensity for virtual technology, she is still preoccupied with the past, having once asked, "If the bitterness of life can fade from memory, just how difficult would it be for happiness to do likewise?"
It seems that it is only because of projects like Father, which attempts to understand history, that Fei is able to provoke the present. As the curator and "don't stop" interviewer Hans Ulrich Obrist has pointed out, Fei is part of a generation of artists that includes the likes of Yang Fudong and Kan Xuan, who, "although influenced by their embrace of a variety of media by Chinese artists in exile such as Huang Yong Ping and Chen Zhen in Paris or Cai Guo-Qiang in New York," have "chosen to remain at home …" In this way, Fei's perspective on China and its teeming complications is not filtered through any lens of Other, and thus retains a truly vernacular content. Her 2004 video COSplayers stages young Chinese fanatics of foreign video games dressed as their favorite characters and living out their fantasy narratives in otherwise mundane urban settings. Based on common real encounters, these costumed adolescents are depicted in both their uncanny imaginative worlds as well as their actual and lonely domestic settings, visually tracing a remarkable, yet completely readable recount of a bi-polar passage between entertainment and reality, fictive heroism and alienation.
Fei's videos usually intervene with reality, and therefore operate as pseudo-documentaries. In 2006, she was invited to make a feature-length film on Yunnan, the South Chinese region located west of Guangdong, but for various reasons it was never made. Instead, however, Fei made Nujiang River Project (2007), a collection of photographs and videos chronicling hers and two friends' pilgrimage through the mountainous province, a journey during which they naïvely interacted with locals. They played basketball with kids, talked about extraterrestrials with hikers, and learned how to pick up girls, creating small and quixotic gestures of intimacy with the region's culture. For her video Whose Utopia? (2006), Fei worked for months in a Foshan factory manufacturing light bulbs for the firm Osram. Meanwhile, she began interacting with the workers, setting up workshops, and persuading them to communicate what their "utopia" would indeed be. One image shows a pirouetting ballerina with wings flitting among an endless order of unidentifiable machines. Another depicts a boy cradling an electric guitar beside tanks of gas. Brief flashes of unbound imagination and a newly procured individuality, these characters suddenly lose anonymity in a work environment and culture that promises nothing but the same. The question repeatedly appears: "What are you doing here?"
Perhaps that is the very question that has mobilized much of Fei's work, not least her departure from the world of industrial travail and into the virtual realm of Second Life. Fei discovered the parallel Internet-based world in 2006, and has yet to relinquish her unremitting exploration of its possibilities for aesthetic production. "I like the organic theatricality [of Second Life], as opposed to the manufactured ones," Fei claims. "As such, I feel that this work is closer to the sensibilities of real documentary." Fei's first project with Second Life was i.Mirror (2006–2007), in which she documented her virtual experiences as the avatar China Tracy. It's a three-part, 28-minute video about Tracy's romantic encounter with Hug Yue, another avatar whose real identity is a 60-something married man in San Francisco. China Tracy even gave birth to her first son, named Sun, during the next Second Life project RMB that took place during the following years. The work's dialogue feels ironically disheartened and romantic, and set against Second Life's hallucinatory labyrinth, the work becomes a highly digitized update of that of American Conceptual and Pop artists such as Jenny Holzer or Ed Ruscha. While Holzer's Truisms light up across electronic diodes as pseudo-truths, Ed Ruscha's lonely gas stations and works with words show the ambivalence of the consumerist "American Way of Life." And in a similar Pop swindle, the search for companionship in i.Mirror only intensifies the world's rampant alienation, and Second Life’s utopian orientation into alternative living environments suddenly lands back in the ennui of the present. As writer and art critic Hu Fang has explained about i.Mirror, "Maybe this is not an era during which we can have the aesthetics for fore-knowledge of the future, because we can't even predict the present."