Cao Fei’s Avatar Bazaar


We live in an age where we can assume any identity online, limited only by imagination and typing speed. And what New Yorker doesn’t yearn to be a real-estate mogul? Cao Fei (a/k/a China Tracy) here offers a chance to buy not a piece of Manhattan, but a stake in RMB City (named for the abbreviation for Chinese currency), a metropolis that exists only in the online community Second Life. Enter Lombard-Freid gallery and you’re greeted by neon logos, scale models, slick renderings, and other come-ons familiar from any condo sales office. But the current rapacious building boom in China is even more frenzied in the virtual realm, which sports levitating skyscrapers and an Olympic stadium perched over a digital ocean. The sales scheme is fascinating (what’s the tax bite in real dollars if you make an RMB killing?), but it’s Cao’s sweet 28-minute video, i.MIRROR, A Second Life Documentary Film (2007), that steals the show.

Mixing the poetry of Octavio Paz, haunting (when not rave-ready) music from a band called Prague, and the truncated syntax of 4 a.m. instant messaging, this “documentary” follows two animated characters, China Tracy and Hug Yue, as they wander through street-level grime and glass-tower opulence. Their dialogue is culled from actual Second Life online messages that Cao has edited into a surprisingly poignant script, typed out across the bottom of the screen—China Tracy: “For me, I can just act myself in SL.” Hug Yue: “We all do that. We do not act. We simply be who we are.” Yet later, when Hug’s hunky blond avatar cops to being a sixtysomething Californian retiree, China wistfully types: “Well, in SL, we are young forever.”

In i.MIRROR, the tug-o’-war between the real and the digital becomes earnestly emotional without the portentousness of a role-playing game or The Matrix. In the end, China Tracy—after a cathartic rave featuring many stylish SL avatars—struts across the cosmos. A fox’s tail flows from her elaborate cos-play outfit, as she muses: “I always imagine h man beings behind hollow digits, all those lonely souls. We are not what we originally are, and yet we remain unchanged.” Forget real estate—someone should pay this insightful and brash young artist to direct a movie version of Neuromancer. It might not have the pizzazz of a Wachowski Brothers epic, but it would certainly have more heart.

‘John Milton at 400’

This concise show of illustrated books by and about Milton, marking his 400th birthday, is a reminder of how compelling the printed page can be. An 1853 edition of Paradise Lost includes a mezzotint depicting “The Palace of Pandemonium”; this powerful composition of distant throngs, stepped towers, and flaming braziers is as dynamic as a still from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. A 1797 print of Milton being visited by the spirit of his deceased wife has, over the centuries, offset itself onto the opposite page, forming a ghostly veil over the poet’s sonnet on the same subject. In another vitrine, snakes writhe through text like demented punctuation, beneath a colorful, presciently modern illustration of flames and animalistic figures from William Blake’s 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The New York Public Library, Fifth Ave and 42nd, 212-592-7730. Through June 14.

‘The Agency of the Orphan’

Judging by these eight-by-10 headshots (which list vital stats of height, weight, and eye and hair color), the quickest way to superherodom is to lose your folks early, preferably violently. Hence the numerous comic-strip and cinematic versions of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, and Disney characters, too, since Uncle Walt liked nothing better than to kill parents in the first act. Add to this little Annie, of course, and Dolores Haze, with her frank, nymphet gaze. Artist Anna Craycroft has gathered hundreds of pictures of fictional orphans (plus her own drawings and sculptures of them) to illustrate that, from Les Misérables‘ Cossette to Lord of the Flies‘ Piggy, it’s best to get Mom and Dad out of the picture early to really rev up a kid’s character. Tracy Williams, 313 W 4th, 212-229-2757. Through April 25.

Angelo Filomeno: ‘Betrayed Witches’

Do you wish to live like a Medici, encrusted in wealth, taste, decadence, and murder, as those Renaissance patrons did? For starters, you could do worse than adorn your abode with Filomeno’s towering and opulent silk embroideries sprinkled with tiny crystals, which shimmer like cascades of stars as you walk past them. These black-and-silver wall pieces depict skulls, scarabs, and other symbols of mortality, including a huge cross trailing empty ropes, some victim of Rome’s tender mercies having gone to the grave. Sex is in the house as well, and not just in the luxurious fabrics—a 20-foot bullwhip, featuring a hand-blown glass handle, curls through a pair of sharpened hooks and ends in an onyx crucifix. The title, The Marquis’s Dominatrix, feels like gilding a black orchid. Galerie Lelong, 528 W 26th, 212-315-0470. Through April 12.

Los Carpinteros

These furnishings-cum-sculptures exist somewhere between a Little Nemo adventure and a surrealist nightmare. La Montana Rusa (Russian Mountain) offers a roller coaster of pink mattresses that twist and undulate through the gallery, supported by a steel-lattice framework. Allusions arise of rollicking sex or sleepless tossing and turning; also factor in that this artistic duo, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez, is based in Havana, where the Soviets cast a long, oppressive shadow. But it was the American embargo that kept the pair from attending their own opening last month—the work was expertly fabricated in Brooklyn from drawings and CAD files sent by the artists. In the front gallery, a small swimming pool has been constructed using the footprint of a sizable house. Replete with submerged walls and doorways, it conjures the subprime-mortgage crisis as anxiety dream. Sean Kelly, 528 W 29th, 212-239-1181. Through April 26.