From Avatars to Zombies: Cao Fei Takes on Reality and Its Discontents at P.S.1


For the Chinese artist Cao Fei, utopias are just stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Not yet forty years old, she belongs to the generation who came of age under Deng Xiaoping, the leader who “modernized” China by instituting a socialist market economy, opening the country up to foreign investment and influence, and fueling one of the most radical episodes of economic growth (and corruption) in world history. Throughout her career, Cao has dealt very directly with the dark consequences of these profound changes: from the rabid consumption of imported pop cultures and malignancies of urban development to the deadening effects of capitalism and the escape routes (both real and virtual) concocted to relieve them. An utterly engaging survey of her work is currently at P.S.1, and although the exhibition includes photographs, objects, and installations, it’s Cao’s moving-image works that steal the show, revealing her to be not only a fascinating visual artist, but also one of the most gifted storytellers in contemporary art.

Cao isn’t particularly interested in creating seamless fictions; her videos often walk the line between documentary and cinema. Rather, she seems most interested in the artificiality of all worlds, both real and imagined. Her docu-spectacle Cosplayers, from 2004, captures a group of young adults in elaborate anime character costumes mock-battling in Guangzhou, where the artist grew up. She shoots them against the backdrops of the city: in an urban stairwell; a lush, empty field; a block of abandoned houses, and elsewhere. The arc of the unfolding drama is straightforward: They fight nobly and gracefully, and either win or lose. Cao makes a point to follow them home too, revealing lives that are far less heroic. We see them with their parents in cramped apartments; one in particular we find curled up on a chair, texting, her head bent over her phone, while her father sits silently, reading the paper.

“Everybody is an actor in a parallel world,” says one of the featured voices in i.Mirror by China Tracy (AKA: Cao Fei), a 2007 documentary film the artist made in Second Life, an online virtual world in which participants live as avatars of their own design. The piece is exhibited as part of an installation dedicated to RMB City (2007-’11), one of Cao’s best-known works. As her avatar China Tracy, the artist built and designed a virtual city in which she, alongside a number of collaborators, created projects and conducted experiments (cultural, social, and otherwise). To think through the value of skin in the virtual world, for example, the artist and her cohorts organized “Naked Idol,” in which contestants competed by showing off their forms. Think of RMB City as a virtual version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a mash-up of architectures and eras that compose a new space for philosophical meanderings — a timeless fiction through which we can think about our contemporary moment.

Cao’s critiques often seem sharpest when expressed in fictions, rather than in documentary. Take, for example, the heartrending but tricky Whose Utopia (2006), which documents workers at the OSRAM lighting factory in Wuxi, China, capturing them at machines and in assembly lines but also dancing and playing guitar inside the factory. In the video’s final section, titled “My Future Is Not a Dream,” the artist assembles moving portraits of men and women who stare directly into the camera as we read the lyrics of a plaintive song in English subtitles: “To whom do you beautifully belong?” But throughout, the subjects never speak for themselves, and the music they play can’t be heard above the soundtrack. The piece’s compassionate framing is clear, but Cao’s aesthetic choices largely erase her subjects. They become cogs of another kind: mere content rather than full-blooded, complex characters.

But in her 2013 zombie apocalypse comedy Haze and Fog, it’s the silencing and flattening of character that’s one of the film’s great strengths. A deft and pulpy meditation on the mundanity of evil, the video depicts some kind of malaise or stupor that has descended on a motley group of people living in and around a colossal apartment building in Beijing. No one speaks and not much happens at first, though things are clearly amiss: A pregnant woman lounging in her living room suddenly lets out bloodcurdling screams; a man with a walker waters his houseplants with piss; a cleaning woman steals a pair of blue stilettos left in the hallway; a cyclist is hit by a car, only to stagger out of frame minutes later as a zombie.

Zombies reappear in La Town (2014), another vision of the end of the world, which the artist this time constructs of models and miniatures and brings to life by way of camera moves and rack focusing. Like RMB City, La Town is a mythical place located on the everywhere/nowhere continuum, frozen in time by an unidentified disaster. We see life, such as it is: children crawling on the floor near their mother while, outside, zombies growl and rattle the chain link fence around their home, and animals run loose. We watch two figures having sex as a giant eye peers into their bedroom window. We see a creepy strip club, a bustling grocery store where monkeys dance on top of the shelves, a high-speed train that’s run over one of Santa’s reindeer, and still more and more mayhem.

“What was there for you to weep over?” a man asks in voiceover, and it’s a good question. Beneath the rubble lies no evidence of either a once-glorious empire or a bygone utopian society — just landscapes littered with fast-food chains, broken planes, and other consumer detritus. In a penultimate twist, we learn that La Town isn’t just a make-believe world; it’s also a diorama displayed in a museum, a fiction within this fiction, a memento mori of sorts. In the final room of the exhibition, you’ll walk past the dioramas you just saw onscreen, displayed for your contemplation. So this is the way the world ends, according to Cao: not with a bang or a whimper, but with stories of the terrible fates we wrote ourselves.

Cao Fei
MoMA P.S.1
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City
Through August 31