Cao Fei - Feature

Beautiful Decay Magazine
April 12, 2008

From the top of artist Cao Fei’s RMB City (2007), one has a panoramic view of the sun setting on the virtual horizon. With the city sitting on small island, the horizon pulls around in a full circle and the ocean expands endlessly out toward it. Fei’s work is often about these sublime moments, these fantasy realities where people reinvent themselves. To create the fantasy that is RMB City, Fei has immersed herself in the ways of what is often called the metaverse, the virtual world known to most as SecondLife.

The focus of Fei’s current solo exhibition at New York’s Lombard Fried Projects, RMB City is undoubtedly her most impressive work to date. Similar to the popular video game series Katamari Damacy - where players roll all the elements of a city into an ever-growing ball - Fei’s work is a screaming swarm of contemporary urbanity. The metropolis is a massive achievement; like any sculpture its size, sharing the same space with it is an awesome experience. Compacting together all that makes a Chinese megalopolis, RMB City rivals the scale of ancient monoliths. Only in virtual space—where distance and size tend to lose meaning—can such monumentality be made.

Drawing on SecondLife’s tools for live three-dimensional rendering, Fei acts as the planner of an absurd virtual city. Clumps of skyscrapers and cranes, a seaport, a tangled mass of highway, and an untold number of other miscellaneous objects are heaped together on the tiny island. Fei is no SecondLife novice; the work has great texture and detail. For as much as RMB City initially appears thrown together, it’s evident that such an aesthetic requires a superb understanding of composition and design in virtual space. Without doubt, Fei spent time studying other works that are renowned in the virtual community, like resident Laukosargas Svarog’s tropical paradise Svarga. Like nearly all of SecondLife, RMB City is driven by fantasy. The powerful waterfall that plunges through the city, the gigantic panda balloon that wafts above the island, and the colossal bicycle wheel that spins adjacent to a smoke stack spewing fire and cinders all build the work’s sense of possibility and intense growth. Certain landmarks make it known what real city served as a model; the new Beijing National Stadium and CCTV Headquarters are prominent fixtures.

RMB City is not Fei’s first effort in Secondlife, at the Venice Biennale last year, Fei premiered i.Mirror (2007), a documentary shot entirely inside SecondLife. The work focuses on the life of Fei’s avatar, China Tracy. Shot in three parts, the video is made entirely of machinima - or machine cinema - footage recorded entirely inside virtual space. Machinima is a relatively new creative phenomenon, stemming from online multi-player games like World Of Warcraft, the cinematic discipline has also become common in SecondLife.

i.Mirror is somber at first. Fei’s depiction of SecondLife is of an empty and hollow world, where one can venture into a pristine solitude of virtual wilderness. In the film’s first sequence, spinning “for sale” signs spread out across an arid desert lead us to China Tracy, who is walking the world’s empty cities. Soon, the camera pans across sets of identical beach homes and tracts of simulated suburban mansions, showing that in a world where one can model a new way of living, many avatars still live the most stereotypical of Hollywood fantasies. Even the cynical are accommodated as the ruins of industry are present too, China Tracy looks out on the sprawl, dilapidated highways, billowing smoke, and a toxic dump are all visible behind her.

For however vapid SecondLife appears, i.Mirror also documents the collective experiences users have in the virtual world. In the second part of the video, China Tracy develops a romantic intrigue with another avatar, Hug Yue. In a series of vignettes, they discuss how we perceive reality. They talk about what it means to live in a world of constant surveillance and what compels them to reach out in the anonymity of SecondLife. In one scene, Fei posits, “Sometimes I am confusing RL and SL. I don’t know where I am.” Fei builds this conceptual dialog into the documentary’s third and final part. Looking toward SecondLife’s many collective events—especially the ubiquitous rave where dozens of avatars endlessly gyrate on their pastel dance pads—the documentary ends in a scene of collective effervescence and a fleeting sense of transcendence.

Fei has brought to contemporary art what millions across the globe already know, that a new type of identity politics is being performed online. Anyone who has spent considerably time in geek utopias like SecondLife knows how far removed they can be be from the everyday. All things are surface and phantom in the virtual world, objects don’t commit to the same logic, and one’s sense of being is slightly unhinged. Like all successful fantasy, RMB City and i.Mirror describes a world that challenges our notion of reality and lets us indulge our desires for all that could be possible. What is key for Fei’s work though is that it addresses the immersive relationship users have with SecondLife, each piece expresses that while we create media and technology, it creates our identity in return. Fei makes it known that the long-held distinctions between real and artificial are false, and that reality is what we continually create ourselves. —Marc LeBlanc


Allora & Calzadilla’s Apocalypse Now at the Wattis Institute, San Francisco