The dynamic Chinese artist talks about the blurred lines between real and virtual, and the challenges of city life.
The inaugural talk of the Conversations Series at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong was an engaging dialogue between Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei, best known for her virtual reality project RMB City, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, which has exhibited works by Cao Fei in the past.
Cao Fei (b. 1978) is a Chinese artist known for her experimental multimedia practice and thematic engagement with cities and urban life, as well as the boundaries between reality and virtual reality in the digital age. The talk focused on Cao’s explorations of cities in all their manifestations as real, virtual or even imaginary spaces. Excerpts from Cao’s works RMB City, Haze and Fog and La Town created in the past few years were shown and discussed. The Art Basel Hong Kong talk also explored Cao’s early influences by the pop culture of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan during her childhood in Guangzhou in mainland China.
Another central focus of the talk was how living in Beijing, a city that is constantly affected by heavy pollution, has shaped Cao’s concerns and experiences as a Chinese artist. The talk ended with a discussion of the large-scale public commission Same Old. Brand New on Hong Kong’s iconic ICC building during Art Basel weekend.
The talk started with Cao’s reflections on her early influences – specifically, to what extent her parents, who were both artists, and Hong Kong, a city close to her hometown Guangzhou, influenced her as an artist.
Cao said that many of her inspirations came from Hong Kong. From a young age, she became receptive to influences from Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan – Chinese societies which were at once geographically close and culturally distant from her hometown. Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy from around the time she was born brought a lot of cultural influences from Hong Kong to the mainland.
In the 1990s, mainland Chinese tourists even started to travel to Hong Kong, although not in the same unrestricted way as they do right now. Cao’s father, a sculptor, received a lot of commissions from the art sector in Hong Kong in the 1980s. The start of Cao’s own career was also closely tied to Hong Kong: she won a short film contest organised by the Hong Kong Arts Centre with a film that kickstarted her entrance into the world of Chinese contemporary art.
A mix of cultures
Cao reflected that when she was a child in the 1980s, her sisters were already teenagers. They exposed her to pop singers such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Sting and others, watching them on VHS tapes and on the MTV channel, which they could only get on TV illegally. From a young age, therefore, she was already interested in moving images and music. Cao noted that the rhythms of her films came from these early childhood pop influences.
Hong Kong culture, as manifested in the Cantonese-language variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight and classic Stephen Chow comedies, also influenced her greatly. Cao also reflected on the influence that Japanese artists such as Yoko Ono and Terayama Shuji had on her. She first learned about Ono’s work in textbooks on contemporary art in college and met her in person in 2007 at the Serpentine Gallery. She admires Ono as a role model and fellow female Asian artist who uses her work to question contemporary issues such as globalisation. Cao said she also took inspiration from the experimental practice in the films of poet and filmmaker Terayama Shuji, who died in 1983 when she was still a young girl.
Online gaming and RMB City
Hans-Ulrich Obrist brought up Cao’s most well-known work RMB City by asking her when she got the epiphany to invent her own city, which would continue to grow and evolve over the years, including through exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery. Cao reflected that the first time she encountered online virtual reality games was in 2006, when her friend, a sound artist, introduced her to that world. She created an online avatar called “China Tracy”, at a time when many different technology companies such as lBM, as well as educational institutions such as universities, were exploring the possibilities of virtual reality by starting virtual platforms online.
With her avatar on the virtual reality platform “Second Life”, Cao became intrigued by the ecosystem of the virtual world and wanted to explore parallel ideas in that realm, such as social norms and the idea of homeland. She researched this world extensively with the help of her avatar, dressing the avatar in new skin, Japanese costumes, qipaos, furs and other types of clothes that she would not wear in real life. She also extended the scope of her virtual research by flying to places like gay clubs, which she would not frequent in real life.
Her research into the complete Second Life realm took six months. In that time, “China Tracy” also encountered a male avatar with whom she started an online romance. Cao realised that she was creating a sort of documentary of her exploration of virtual realtiy by engaging her avatar in different virtual experiences. Eventually, this documentary grew into the idea to create her own “island” on this virtual reality platform.
Collaborations on RMB City
As Obrist pointed out, RMB City involved a web of collaborations with collectors, galleries, researchers and other investors through layers of institutions, museums and public organisations before it was exhibited in various places, such as in Yokohama in 2008.
Cao reflected that her idea to involve different people from different spheres in her virtual city was essentially about finding maximum possibilities within the ecosystems of virtual reality. For example, the virtual land in RMB City needed to be bought by investors and collectors. Uli Sigg was one of the most prominent early investors in the project, so Cao dedicated the virtual city hall in the city to his use. Soon afterwards, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Bejing also joined in collecting a virtual building. In their digital space, UCCA held virtual exhibitions and biennales.
Cao also organised other parallel activities in RMB City to explore the possibilities of virtual reality. For example, she initiated “Naked Idol” – a contest modelled after American Idol – and invited judges to pick a virtual winner to explore the possible manifestations of nakedness in a virtual world. In the contest, participating avatars stripped off their clothes, revealing skin underneath that was variously covered with symbols, invisible or even furry.
Meant to be a composite Chinese city of the 21st century, RMB City also featured numerous recognisable spaces in real-world China, including Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building, in a fanciful landscape.
Obrist brought up the utopic ideal in many artistic attempts at imagining cities and asked Cao how RMB City is connected to that tradition. He asked further what “utopia” meant to her as an artist. Cao reflected that she made her film Whose Utopia after doing extensive research at a Siemens factory in China in 2005 to explore this perennial question. In particular, within China’s rapidly developing economy, utopia could mean completely different things to different people – labourers and capitalists would have different utopic ideals, for example.
As an artist, Cao naturally wanted to look for answers to this question through artistic means, so she tried to build a city online as an expression of her utopic ideal. She had expected RMB City to be a sort of future utopia constructed online. However, after the 2008 financial crisis, fewer investors wanted to work with the project, and the platform Second Life also lost a great deal of money. As Cao saw it, these events happening in the real world seemed to respond negatively to her bold attempt at building a utopia online.
Art as life experience
Obrist then asked whether Cao used the mediums of digital art and filmmaking as theatrical attempts at imitating life experiences. Cao reflected that, growing up in Guangzhou, life experiences and artistic experiences were often highly interconnected. She felt that living in a vibrant city ecosystem is a non-stop experience and is invigorating in a similar way to making art.
However, when she moved to Beijing, her experience was completely different. She felt that she had to constantly defend herself against boredom and bad pollution. RMB City was created when she was living in Beijing, which meant that there was constantly a big contrast between her online and offline lives – in the virtual world, she was living a vibrant urban life, and her life in the real world seemed boring and sad in contrast.
The future of RMB City
As RMB City is not a physical object but an online project, it needs to be kept and protected in a different way. Obrist asked what Cao envisioned as the long-term development of the work in ten, twenty and even thirty years’ time, when Second Life might not even exist. Cao responded by saying that Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities had a strong influence on her. She had attempted to store RMB City in document form and had backed it up, adding that she was intrigued by the idea that the work could be rendered in material form but could also be invisible at the same time.
In the future, the work might just exist as a document, but Cao believes the boundary between the real and the virtual will always remain blurry if not become more so. She used Google Maps and other similar technology as examples – virtual maps show real places in a sort of imaginary geography, raising the question of whether the visible markers shown on Google Maps are more real, or whether the physical places signified by the markers are more real even if the user has probably never been to them. Another example Cao used was how social media today allows people to gain internet fame without being famous in ‘real life’. She said that one possibility for the future of RMB City was for it to become a sort of anthropological record in twenty or thirty years’ time – in the same way that VHS tapes from the 1980s and 1990s are now records of a past technology for us.
Haze and Fog
Haze and Fog is a film made by Cao in 2013 featuring urban zombies roaming around the area in Beijing where she lives. In 2011, at a time when the pollution in northern China was steadily worsening, Cao started watching the American TV show Walking Dead on AMC. With zombies from the show in mind, she reflected that the low visibility in Beijing caused by pollution gave her an apocalyptic feeling as she could not even see out her window. As she saw it, life in Beijing had many parallels with life in the world of Walking Dead – people had to wear face masks to protect themselves in public, for instance – so she would be plagued by the worry that the world would soon be destroyed by zombies.
These factors led her to bring in the zombie figure and the element of fog and mist into Haze and Fog. The film, which runs 46 minutes in total, was commissioned by Eastside Projects in Birmingham and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester. During the China Power Station exhibition in Battersea in 2006, Cao recruited Chinese immigrants to say something about their status as immigrants in England. She felt the same should be done in Haze and Fog, as Beijing is also a place that attracts economic migrants from all over the country who are both rich and poor. Her accompanying novel and screenplay to the film were based on these ideas.
Linking back to her earlier point about the boundary between the real and the virtual, Cao cited a scene in Haze and Fog in which a woman drops a box of delivery items. She wrote the scene in reference to the way that many things can now be bought online and delivered in their physical form. Cao also reflected on her influences by independent Chinese filmmakers, such as Jia Zhangke, as well as by foreign filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Roy Andersson.
Cao said that her screenplay was based on many short novels she wrote about different people in Beijing. She would plan out the shots and had an exact image of how everything would work visually, but the script was more literary and abstract, leaving out concrete descriptions for each scene. She also left out dialogue in the whole work, because she felt it would be hard to make the characters seem natural with words.
La Town and the Night Museum
La Town is a film made in 2014 that features a dead model city after it has been struck by a mysterious disaster. After making Haze and Fog, Cao realised that there were many ambitious scenes in Walking Dead that she wanted to imitate but could not because of their scale, and so she turned to a much smaller scale for her next film project. She found small (1:87) figurines online for use in German model train collections. With these small figures, she felt that she could be a “real” director with almost unlimited – or godly – power as to what she wanted to do to the city and characters.
She picked the title La Town (La as in the French article) because it sounded subtle and had a post-apocalyptic ring to it. The whole model city was as small as the artist’s palm, and all the filming was done on a table with no prior screenplay. In order to create the destruction and ruin she envisioned for the city, Cao had to, ironically, abandon her digital and multimedia practice and use her hands. After shooting the scenes she had in mind, the scenes were put together to form a city. Cao said that the way she filmed this work paralleled the way she worked in art school; her teachers always told her to start a painting by planning out the composition first, but she would always do her own thing and start with a small part, like an eye. In the end, the painting would turn out the same way as if she had planned it.
As the work was not commissioned and had no deadline, Cao wanted it to have a meaningful finish. She thought that even a city in ruins should have an art museum, but this museum should be dedicated to darkness and night. She sourced for a model of a museum and named it the “Night Museum”. Cao’s curatorial concept for this museum in the model city was that it would be different from normal museums, which close at 6pm. Instead, it would only open at night, after people get off work, and would feature drinks, film screenings, poetry readings, a pool table – in other words, a mix of culture and entertainment. This was something that she thought a city utopia should have.
A major influence on La Town was the famous French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, based on a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. The film, featuring two main characters known as “He” and “She”, deals with the themes of memory and forgetfulness. Cao reflected that the film is a source of inspiration for her, and she would always go back to it without watching it from start to finish. She was always intrigued by the ideas of memory and amnesia and of renewal after destruction. After filming La Town, Cao thought that adding lines from Hiroshima Mon Amour – such as “What do you see?” or “I can’t see anything” – would add another layer of blurring between the boundaries of what is real and what is not. She wanted to use alternating lines that were affirming and negating, in order to question what is visible and what is invisible.
Same Old. Brand New
In late 2014, Cao was commissioned to create a large-scale public work on the outside of the iconic ICC building in Hong Kong. This gave Cao a unique opportunity to create a work centering around her interest in urban living on a landmark in Hong Kong, a city that was a source of inspiration to her growing up.
Cao decided to use video games from the 1980s such as Mario Brothers, Tetris and Pac-Man, as a common language to explore the collective memory of Hong Kong people. She was intrigued by how her public work would trigger viewers’ responses on social media on the internet, as this was in a way the reverse of RMB City – a real artwork in a real city becomes another virtual entity online.
Cao constantly explores ways in which social media mediates private and public lives. For her, it is intriguing that a sentence like “You scan me? Or I scan you”, referring to who would look for whom on WeChat – China’s most popular text messaging application – seems to have replaced a simple greeting.
Other examples that she cited include the way that a stranger she meets at a nail parlour could easily enter into her private life through social media, as well as seeing a familiar actor on an airplane whose name she has forgotten – even if the person is just metres away, smartphones allow her to look up all their information down to every last detail. In the digital age, we are constantly consuming other people’s lives and being consumed at the same time.
Censorship and self-censorship in China
The artist talk ended with a discussion of Cao’s perspective on artists’ – especially Chinese – unrealised projects due to censorship, self-censorship or a lack of support. In Cao’s opinion, it is true that cultural censorship is strict in China, leaving a smaller creative scope for Chinese artists, but at the same time, a part of artistic creation is to find ways to explore social problems and develop one’s own style and practice while accommodating censorship.
Looking at it from another angle, sometimes cultural censorship is not as restrictive as commercial censorship in the form of copyright laws – she had to deal with extensive copyright issues to reference the games in Same Old. Brand New, for example. In the end, she believes that it is true that some Chinese artists over-censor themselves, but focusing on the word ‘compromise’ would be dismissing the great work that is constantly being produced by artists as they work around obstacles.
- Is the censorship of Chinese art misunderstood? – September 2014 – Art Radar explains and explores the many nuances of art censorship in China today
- Dystopia in Beijing: Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog – January 2014 – Cao Fei’s film Haze and Fog reworks the zombie film genre and turns the lens on contemporary life in Beijing
- “China China”: Artists of the Cultural Revolution and beyond – picture feast – May 2013 – the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine, hosts an exhibition focusing on contemporary Chinese artists
- Cao Fei’s unsung factory heroes explained – art:21 video – November 2011 – Cao Fei discusses the anti-hero characteristics she gave factory workers in a recent theatrical work
- Emphasis on viewer experience not sales: Vitamin Creative, Cao Fei at Frieze – November 2010 – Vitamin Creative Space collaborates with Cao Fei to transform an art space into an installation at Frieze Art Fair in London
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