In Cao Fei’s 2007 video i.Mirror, the artist isn’t billed as the director. That credit goes instead to her Second Life avatar, China Tracy, who wears an armor-like suit and, in the video, wanders an entire virtual world that Cao designed. Other players could enter Cao’s computer-generated city though an online platform, and the video captures some of the interactions Cao-as-China had. In one conversation, she meets Hug Yue, a charming, tuxedoed avatar that flirts with Cao’s avatar. At sunrise, they walk down a decaying urban street, toward a digital ocean. He says to her, “Everybody is an actor in a parallel world. All the world is a stage…”
Cao, who is based in Beijing, doesn’t look much like China Tracy. When we spoke last week, in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 in Queens, Cao had a large swath of her neatly combed short hair dyed pink and green. She wore a white T-shirt with a bright red jacket, and one mint-green earring, and we got to talking about how, in her work, real life and fantasy often spill into one another. “The dream is always there,” she said. (A translator joined us, but she jumped in to smooth the conversation only occasionally; Cao spoke in English.)
Cao’s work often focuses on the collision of dreams and reality, specifically in modern-day China. Is there really a difference between the two? For the cosplayers, hip-hop dancers, gamers, and factory workers in Cao’s art, the answer would be no—idealistic fantasies, in Cao’s world, have a tendency to leak into everyday life, and that can happen in any number of ways. “I’m not fixing a meaning on utopia,” she told me. “In my work, there are opposite ways [of viewing utopia]—lost or enjoyable. Both deal with reality.”
For the past 17 years, videos, performances, and photographs by Cao, who is now 37, have appeared in biennials and shows around the world. Even if you didn’t see her work in museums, you read about it online, where some of her most talked-about art has lived. Having risen to fame during the early 2000s, at a time when the market for Chinese art was rapidly expanding, Cao is just now receiving her first solo U.S. museum show at PS1, where a career survey opened on Sunday.
Short as Cao’s career may be, a lot has already changed for her. In her opinion, she needs to be reclassified. “People feel that if you’re making video from some digital machine, that’s new media,” Cao said. “But now everyone is making video. Everybody uses an iPhone. It’s all ‘new media!’ ”
It was a natural impulse for Cao, who was born in 1978 in Guangzhou, to use video, a medium that incorporates performance. When she was a teenager, she acted in Chinese commercials, and this, she said, is responsible for her interest in what she calls “pop things”—advertising, consumer culture, and mass media. “My work was going to reach a large audience,” she said. “It wasn’t going to be video art, where you have to know the artist’s thinking. Its language would be more accessible.” Her father was a socialist realist sculptor, and that contributed to her work’s documentary quality.
Cao said that she never planned to follow her father’s lead and become an artist. In fact, she didn’t realize she wanted to be an artist until she made her first work of art, the video Imbalance 257, in 1999. In the video, Cao films students in their free time at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where she was studying film and communications. They watch porn, do drugs, and party, and Cao films it all using long takes. Her professor sent the video to the curator Hou Hanru, who was impressed by the way Cao contrasted work and play, and he went on to curate it in shows in Madrid and South Korea.
Imbalance 257 is included in the PS1 show, along with such early videos as Rabid Dogs (2002), in which a group of actors crawl and run around an office like the out-of-control canines its title implies. Unlike much of Cao’s later work, the video is frenzied, but it foreshadows what would ultimately become a more developed interest in how capitalism tames workers. Still, she said, “This show has early practice. It’s not work—it’s practice.”
Cao soon narrowed her work to focusing on communities in China, and in 2004, she had one of her greatest critical successes with COSplayers, a video in which people dress up as characters, fight each other using fake swords, and lounge in costume by a river. (A series of photographs also goes with the work.) A few years later, in 2006, Cao made her video Whose Utopia, in which we first see factory workers laboring away, and then, minutes later, performing more-fun identities, like a ballerina or a guitar player, in their workspace.
“It’s a reflection of real society,” Cao said, of the cosplayers and factory workers’ fantasy selves. “It’s about the questions brought upon those communities by globalization and urbanization.”
Cao has extended the interest in fantasy to the digital sphere, and in 2007, she created RMB City, a virtual world made using the online-gaming system Second Life. Players around the world could join for free and interact with Cao’s avatar, China Tracy. They would see a city that resembled Beijing, where Cao moved in 2006, but one that is more idealized and even, to some extent, nightmarish—it has a giant panda that floats about it, but it also has a huge smokestack that spouts fire. “With Second Life, I was interested in how people were using new tools,” she said. “I wanted to see how new media is changing our lives.”
The later works in PS1’s Cao survey are a remarkable turnaround from RMB City, which the artist shut down in 2011. Haze and Fog (2013) is a video in which Chinese people mysteriously turn into zombies; in La Town (2014), the camera makes models of a seedy small town seem very real. Both are extremely cinematic—Cao takes her cues from directors like Roy Andersson, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Tati.
For Cao, research, whether it means watching movies or reading Rem Koolhaas books about urban architecture, is important. Indulging in real, tangible things can help her get at something fantastical. “For many of my works, I do research, but I don’t know what the results will be,” she said. “It’s not, ‘I’m going to make a film about that dream,’ and then writing a story. No, it’s all the research. That way, I’ll have real emotion. Many people told me they cried when they saw my videos.”
Her translator interrupted. “I cried for i.Mirror,” she said.
Cao smiled and exclaimed, “Really!” She paused and then added, “Some people who are doing documentaries would become friends with [their subjects], very close. But I need to keep distance. I’m in, and I’m out, every time. I’m looking out and observing.”