Meet the Season 5 Artist: Cao Fei

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Fantasy, premiering on Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Fantasy presents four artists — Cao Fei, Mary Heilmann, Jeff Koons, and Florian Maier-Aichen — whose hallucinatory, irreverent, and sublime works transport us to imaginary worlds and altered states of consciousness.

Who is Cao Fei and what does she have to say about fantasy?

Cao Fei was born in Guangzhou, China in 1978; she lives and work in Beijing. Cao’s work reflects the fluidity of a world in which cultures have mixed and diverged in rapid evolution. Her video installations and new media works explore perception and reality in places as diverse as a Chinese factory and the virtual world of Second Life. Applying strategies of sampling, role play, and documentary filmmaking to capture individuals’ longings and the ways in which they imagine themselves—as hip-hop musicians, costumed characters, or digitized alter egos—Cao Fei reveals the discrepancy between reality and dream, and the discontent and disillusionment of China’s younger generation. Depictions of Chinese architecture and landscape abound in scenes of hyper-capitalistic Pearl River Delta development, in images that echo traditional Chinese painting, and in the design of her own virtual utopia, RMB City. Fascinated by the world of Second Life, Cao Fei has created several works in which she is both participant and observer through her Second Life avatar, China Tracy, who acts as a guide, philosopher, and tourist.

On the subject of fantasy in art, Cao talks about the intermingling of dreams and reality in her work Whose Utopia (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

In Whose Utopia (2006) there is an avatar-like element, with factory workers role-playing their fantasies. The theme of reality versus dream and fantasy is present throughout my works. And I think that settings or surrounding backgrounds have a profound influence on characters and how they relate to each other. So when I first got the invitation from Siemens Corporation to create a work my first thought was that this might be a good opportunity to shoot inside a factory. This is usually very difficult. At that time the topic of the Pearl River Delta as the factory of the world was still out there. I felt that I had to get a firm grasp of the whole picture, to go behind the scenes in the factory and discover something about the essence and soul of the place, before plunging into the creative process.

Every artist has a different approach to working on a project. What I had in mind was to discover some of the inherent problems in the system. When the work finally came out, some Western viewers reacted by saying how much they hate the idea of the world’s factory, the exploitation of multinational capital, and the poor treatment of workers it so often entails. But I don’t think Whose Utopia is about this. It’s not an exposé, nor is it about political correctness. Rather, it attempts to look at and examine a particular kind of reality from multiple angles—how workers are on the lookout for the opportunity to survive; where they are now versus the kinds of dreams they have; their experiences growing up; their nostalgia or memory of their hometowns, their traditional Chinese families, their life experiences living inland, and how they migrated into urban life; and their hopes and aspirations for the future. These are the main issues.

What happens in Cao Fei’s segment in Fantasy this October?

“Dear ladies and gentleman, I’m China Tracy—the avatar of Cao Fei—and I’m her interpreter.” Cao Fei’s digital Second Life alter ego acts as the English translator for the Chinese-speaking artist throughout the segment, guiding the viewer through seven multimedia projects.

A day-in-the-life is captured in the sensitive Milkman (2005), corporate culture is critiqued in the surrealistic Rabid Dogs (2004), while the assimilation of American pop culture by Asians is celebrated in Cao’s series of Hip Hop videos (2006). Through a blend of documentary and magical realism, the artist investigates various aspects of role play: costumed youth and their families in COSPlayers (2004), workers’ dreams come to life at a Siemens light factory in Whose Utopia (2006), and the simulated romance between avatars in i.Mirror by China Tracy (2007).

The segment culminates in the artist’s ongoing project, RMB City, an artificial island built in the 3D virtual world of Second Life that resembles a postmodern collage of landmarks, urban over-development, and Chinese landscape painting. The interactive work is shown in multiple ways: behind-the-scenes on computers in her Beijing studio, as an installation at the Serpentine Gallery in London (2008), and as Internet-based machinima shot during the opening ceremony/dance party in January 2009. “I think this project will lead to a foundation on which to experiment with utopian practices,” says Cao, who is turning the management of her imaginary city over to its online community.

Cao Fei. "RMB CITY 4," 2007. Digital c-print, 47 1/5 x 63 inches. © Cao Fei, courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

Cao Fei. "RMB CITY 4," 2007. Digital c-print, 47 1/5 x 63 inches. © Cao Fei, courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

What else has Cao done?

Cao Fei earned a BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou, China (2001). Her work has appeared in solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London (2008); Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2007); Museum Het Domein, Sittard, Netherlands (2006); and Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong (2006). She has participated in the New Museum Triennial (2009); Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008); Prospect.1 New Orleans (2008); Yokohama Triennial (2008); and Istanbul, Lyon, and Venice Biennials (2007). Her work has appeared at the New Museum, New York (2008); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2007); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2006); and Asia Society, New York (2006).

Where can I see more of Cao Fei’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Cao Fei is represented by Lombard Freid Projects in New York. Her work can be seen as part of the exhibition Business as Usual at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle until October 4th, 2009; the exhibition Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video at the International Center of Photography in New York from October 2, 2009 to January 17, 2010; and The World is Yours at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark from September 5, 2009 to January 10, 2010. Her project in Second Life, RMB City, is on view and online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What’s your take on Cao Fei’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!