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Interview with Cao Fei

The Chinese artist Cao Fei documents life in her country’s rapidly changing urban and social landscapes. Her eclectic work as an artist – which extends to video, photography, digital animation, and writing – twins the physical and material changes driven by industrialisation with the increasing immersion of China’s youth in digital networks and virtual environments.

 

Her early work explored these preoccupations – the video ‘COSPlayers’ (2004), released when she was 25 years old, follows adolescents as they dress up as animé characters and skirt the edgelands of Guangzhou, the sprawling port city of Fei’s birth; in ‘Whose Utopia?’ (2006, presented at the Tate Modern in 2014/15), workers at a manufacturing plant act out their fantasy lives amid the machines. She came to wider international prominence for her construction of a virtual Gotham toontown called RMB City (2006–2011) on Second Life, the online world in which it is possible to buy property, get married, and set up businesses through a digital alias.

 

Fei operated in Second Life through the avatar China Tracey. In ‘i.Mirror’ (2007), Tracey meets Hug Yue, a hunky blonde in white-tie, and together they rove the virtual landscape on a safari romance, musing on the spliced world they encounter. RMB City is an island conurbation comprised of a heap of souvenirs and stock images – as if burped out of a factory production line – which Fei describes as a ‘condensed incarnation of contemporary Chinese cities’ complete with chimneystacks, statues of Mao, shipping containers and shopping malls. Fei has documented the city in a wide range of mediums, from videos and virtual guides to a theatrical production on Second Life (‘RMB City Opera’, 2009).

 

Fei has exhibited widely, including at the Venice Biennale (2003, 2007, 2015), Deutsche Guggenheim (2006), and Serpentine Gallery, London (2008). Her work has been shown at, among others, Tate Modern, London; the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography and MoMA, New York; and at the Centre Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Her first museum solo show in the US opened at MoMA PS1 this April (and runs to 31 August).

 

We meet amidst the palatial architecture of Somerset House in London. Fei has short, cropped hair and a startlingly pink lipstick; when her phone buzzes, emojis shower across her screen. Now and again, she turns to an aide shadowing a wall nearby, who leans in to translate a word Fei can’t find in English. While many critics have sought to read Fei’s work as a critical mediation on Chinese citizenship – the dual despair and excitement of life in thriving industrial metropolises, and the necessary refuge taken in virtual realms – Fei offers an upbeat attitude towards her work, characterised by a will to document but not to pull apart. It’s fun, she insists gleefully, it’s all play.

Q

The White Review

— When did you decide to build a virtual city?

 

A

Cao Fei

— I got interested in Second Life around 2006, which was its peak as an online community. I began to travel around it a lot with my avatar, China Tracey, and I was spending maybe eight hours a day in Second Life. The landscape there is full of representations of real life cities that people have built, so you can find Time Square or the Eiffel Tower, or bits of Amsterdam. There are universities with mirror campuses and various businesses like IBM. But there were hardly any representations of China.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Why do you think that was?

 

A

Cao Fei

— Few people in China were using Second Life. It was hard to download it and to get access. There was only the Forbidden City – but this is old China, the China of legend, the walled city where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty once lived. So I began to think it was necessary to represent contemporary China in some way – and not from an official, governmental position, but from an artist’s angle. And so I built RMB City, which is named after our currency, the Renminbi. It’s China in its boom, China as a financial, industrial economy.

 

Q

The White Review

—  I visited the city in one of your video tours, ‘RMB City: A Second Life City Planning’ (2007). It’s a strange assembly of interlocking structures, objects and cultural tropes. There’s a flying panda, a huge bicycle wheel, skyscrapers and flying trains, and an enormous yellow toilet…

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Yes it’s crazy, full of different samples and different symbols of China all mixed together. There’s a river flowing through the city, because I was thinking of the Pearl River Delta, which is a megacity in the south of China where a lot of manufacturing happens and it’s built around three rivers. In RMB City, the river flows into the huge toilet you mentioned, and then out into the ocean. The toilet is like a juicer. It’s juicing up the city!

 

Q

The White Review

—  When you opened RMB City to the public in 2008 there were artists and collectors who attended as avatars. I read the Swiss collector Uli Sigg was there, and various Second Life celebrities (‘SLeberities’). Did you think of it as an exhibition opening?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  It was fun to open it to the public. We actually had the preview opening when I was in London for a show at the Serpentine Gallery. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones and Anthony Gormley were there using avatars to enter the city, and I also had my team in China working from there.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Many writers describing RMB City begin to interpret the symbols in Western art historical terms – so the bicycle wheel is seen as a reflection of Duchamp’s readymade.

 

A

Cao Fei

—  It’s wrong! It’s not Duchamp – it’s a Chinese bicycle wheel. Duchamp was not someone I chose to reference, he’s not part of my research. The city is meant to represent China.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Does your avatar China Tracey represent you directly, or is she a protagonist, more of a fiction?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  She’s definitely me. She’s Asian, but I didn’t feel the need to make her look like me. I change her all the time. I have a China Tracey inventory, with all sorts of parts, like a wardrobe. I keep the same face, but lately I changed my skin. I just upgraded to skin with better texture. You know, with freckles. When I look back at my earlier videos, like ‘i.Mirror’, I see a China Tracey that’s an old product. I’m always upgrading her, changing her. Avatar bodies don’t have proper genitals, so if you want to have sex you have to buy yourself a pussy or a dick and use the mouse to set it up. You can choose the colour of your pubes: dark, light, red. And you can have both if you like, a dick and a pussy together.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Is it expensive to buy a dick?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Some of the very simple shapes are free. But you can upgrade, you can compare. You can get different functions.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In ‘i.Mirror’ you meet an avatar called Hug Yue, and you begin to travel around Second Life together. Did you ever meet the person behind the avatar?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Yes I did – he was a guy from San Francisco. After I exhibited that video at the Venice Biennale in 2007 I went to California and met up with him. In ‘i.Mirror’ his avatar is a young, handsome guy, but I already knew that in real life he was an old man in his 60s. I’d found an image of him online beforehand, because he was a former political activist. His name is Ed Mead, and he was part of an underground left wing movement in California that hijacked a bank in the ‘70s. He went to jail for more than ten years. I met him in a Starbucks in San Francisco, and he was very old and a bit shy.

Q

The White Review

—  I read ‘i.Mirror’ as a romance, where your avatars fall in love. Did you have feelings for him via China Tracey?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  In Second Life, there was a narrative we seemed to fall into. A beautiful girl met a handsome boy – so why not fall in love? That’s how it goes. But in real life, it didn’t make sense. I was so lucky to meet Hug Yue, because he wasn’t somebody just living out a fantasy of wealth and youth, like so many people do in Second Life. We actually became friends because he saw my name was ‘China’, and he was immediately interested in me because of the link to communism. I think because he’d been in jail, because he was older, because of his politics, he had this idea to just be himself in the virtual world. We had a lot of amazing philosophical dialogues.

Q

The White Review

—  When you were spending more that eight hours online, was there any confusion between your first/second lives?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Second Life offers a kind of freedom. I might be stuck at home in my room, but I can also be free in a big digital world, meeting so many people, having so many conversations. One night, in real life in Beijing, I went with a friend to a nightclub. Nobody talks to you in clubs! It was so lonely. And I just wanted to hurry back to Second Life. I find the virtual world more interesting, I really mean that. I can walk around, overhear conversations, speak to anyone I like. I feel freer there.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you see the turn to the virtual world a symptom of alienation, of living in huge, lonely metropolises?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  I think a lot of people use the internet to find connections, so as not to be lonely. The new thing is these internet talk shows hosted by women. You can send her questions, so she’s in dialogue with her fans, and if you like her then you give her money. The girl earns money if she looks good and talks good. Thousands of people watch her – mainly men, and they give her so much money. It’s crazy! But you asked about being lonely. I think the internet means you’re not lonely any more. I think you can be more emotional on the internet than in real life. When people use WhatsApp, they put emojis and flowers and are really enthusiastic; but when you meet them in real life, maybe they’re really distant. I think people are able to express themselves better in the virtual world.

Q

The White Review

—  Much of your early work is preoccupied with youth culture. In the video ‘Chain Reaction’ (2000) there are kids in lab coats who dissect a pig and serve up its innards in a martini glass. They seem to be kicking against a system.

 

A

Cao Fei

—  I’m very interested in youth culture, and my early work is about freaking out, about going against the system. But in these works it’s an internal, psychological journey, things happening within the mind. After I finished school in 2000, I began to learn more about industrialisation and to engage with urban research, working with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas. I began to gain a much deeper knowledge of how industrialisation functions, and my frame widened. ‘COSplayers’ came out of this, working with Chinese cosplay communities. Groups of young people dress up as their animé characters and roam around the city, through construction sites and wastelands. I was trying to think more about the city, and about how people exist within it.

Q

The White Review

—  This preoccupation with youth culture and marginal cultural spaces extends to the idea of ‘Chinatown’ in general. In a previous interview, you talked of the underground order of these spaces and their resistant power. Is there a link between the city you created in Second Life and ‘Chinatown’ as a district in a foreign city?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Yes there’s a link: they are both alternative, subversive spaces. Chinatown is a lower echelon of society and there are dark society systems at play. People feel the need to protect each other. I always visit Chinatowns – in New York, in London, in other cities – not only because it connects me with my own nationality, but also as an act of solidarity.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve often worked with the hip hop group Notorious MSG, who are from New York’s Chinatown. How did you begin that collaboration?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  I’ve known them for ten years now. I made a ‘Hip Hop’ series in Guangzhou in 2006 – I wanted to make another version in New York and, during my research, I came across Notorious MSG. They’re a satirical gangsta rap group: one of their songs is called ‘Straight out of Canton’, and I just found it so funny. They are a trio, and they met in the kitchen of a Chinatown restaurant where they were working as cooks and delivery boys. They feel so low in the American system, like an underclass. When my show at MoMA PS1 opened this year, they did a performance. They sang their imitations of gangster rap and threw dim sum into the audience. Everyone loved it!

Q

The White Review

—  You were commissioned by Eastside Projects in Birmingham to make the zombie apocalypse film ‘Haze and Fog’ (2013). Is there a zombie tradition in China?

A

Cao Fei

—  There are zombies in the Qing Dynasty legends and in Chinese folklore, which we call ‘jiangshi’. They are stiff, dead bodies that hop around and suck out people’s life force. There’s also a tradition of horror movies that came out of Hong Kong in the 1980s, called ‘jiangshi fiction’. It was a project to make Chinese versions of the Hollywood horror genre using these traditional legends. There’s one movie about a man who snuck into the Forbidden City, which was full of beautiful princesses, and as a punishment they cut off his dick. Then he comes back from the dead as a ‘jiangshi’ and kills everybody. So I was thinking about these references when I made ‘Haze and Fog’, but at the same time, I wanted to mix up traditions, so I watched the American TV series, The Walking Dead.

Q

The White Review

—  For ‘Whose Utopia?’ you spent six months at a German-run light bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta region with the workers, eventually asking them to role-play the lives they aspired to, to live out their fantasies. It’s notoriously difficult to get inside of the factories and to get permission to film. What was your experience?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  At the beginning the factory managers had somebody follow us around to watch what I filmed. But after a few weeks, they realised that I wasn’t trying to steal secrets and they began to forget about me. It was a local factory, and they never commented on the film or objected to the final video.

Q

The White Review

—  Did you become close to the factory workers?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  Yes, we hung out a lot together and became friends. We did karaoke and ate our meals together. But I’ve lost contact with them now. Their families are in the countryside and they return home maybe once a year. At the factory, they sleep in dormitories and they hardly ever leave because they want to save money. You can opt to work longer hours and get a bigger salary. They don’t want to leave – they want to work.

Q

The White Review

—  Do they have access to the internet?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  At that time, in 2006, they didn’t have internet or smartphones. But there’s a bar, there’s a place to play music. Some have instruments and there was even a band. I met a lot of women workers who send money home to support their brothers, because in traditional families boys are considered to be more important, and so the girl’s work will support their education. Stories like this are very common.

Q

The White Review

—  What did you think of the workers’ conditions?

A

Cao Fei

—  It was a clean factory. They had good salaries. I just thought, it’s normal, it’s just how it is. I grew up in Guangzhou in the south of China, which is referred to as ‘the world’s factory’. I watched it change completely. But change is so normal in China. We’ve got used to it. There is always building work and so it’s always noisy. That’s why so many of my films have these loud soundtracks. It’s the noise of cities endlessly being built.

Q

The White Review

—  Your father Cao Chong’en is a famous sculptor in China, and his statues of leaders like Mao appear in many cities. They are ‘realist’ sculptures, but it also strikes me that they are laced with fantasy, as portraits of power and aggrandisement. Do you see similar themes in your work, and your father’s – those of fantasy, of desire?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  My father’s work has had a great influence on me. I see our practices as two narrative paths that are in tandem. I am one step to the side of fantasy and he is one step to the side of reality. But we are approaching the same thing, and we are mixing real life and second life, reality and desire.

Q

The White Review

—  You’re now living in Beijing. Do you have a network of artists and thinkers that you’re connected with in the city?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  The scene is quite dispersed, but I feel there are more and more artists emerging, especially women – like Gua Xiao, who currently has a show at the ICA in London. It used to be that in the West, there was this basic label for a ‘Chinese artist’, but I think that’s changing. And there are many artists in China who don’t speak to the West at all, and who make work for an Asian audience.

Q

The White Review

—  What made you want to be international in your reach?

 

A

Cao Fei

—  It’s in my character – I’m playful and I love working with different people, crazy people that I meet on the internet, people from London or America or anywhere. I love the wider stage.

Q

The White Review

—  You seem to enjoy this pick and mix attitude, being carefree about it.
A

Cao Fei

—  It’s fun! I don’t get anxious about mixing thing up, because I always have a Chinese perspective. I was born in China and I live in China and I see the world through that lens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current exhibition at MoMA PS1, New York: 3 April – 31 August 2016.

 

Cao Fei’s work will be on show at CASS Sculpture Foundation in Sussex, UK, as part of A Beautiful Disorder, an exhibition of outdoor sculpture by contemporary Chinese artists. Showing 3 July – 6 November 2016. 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


CAO FEI (b. 1978, Guangzhou) is a Chinese artist based in Beijing.

IZABELLA SCOTT is a writer based in London.


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