Cao Fei is a multimedia Chinese artist who works in a global context. She focuses on the collision of dreamland and reality. Her video installations, performance art, and digital media works explore perception and reality in both actual places of modern-day China and in the virtual world of computer animation. She uses strategies of sampling, roll playing, and documentary filmmaking to capture the discontent of China’s younger generation and to show their longings and imaginings of themselves.
Cao Fei, who lives and works in Beijing since 2006, was born in Guangzhou, China and earned a B.F.A. from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. After graduating, Cao made short videos and experimental documentaries which dealt with the problems of China’s rapid economic growth.
Through a blend of documentary and magical realism, Cao Fei looks for connections between past and present and between Eastern and Western cultures by investigating various aspects of role playing. She depicted Chinese teenagers “cosplaying” (costumed role-playing in venues other than the stage) as anime characters in an industrial city landscape in her 2004 “COS Players.” This work consisted of a photo series and video.
In 2006, she produced both her “Hip Hop Series,” showing the influence of American hip hop in China, and the three-part film “Whose Utopia?,” the most lyrical of her films. She used montage, music, and imagery to contrast the repetitive work of factory workers with their dreams and aspirations. Several workers performed – some dressed in costumes; some sang; some danced, some played guitars – to reinvent themselves and to show a fantasy life.
Cao’s interest in fantasy extends to the digital sphere. In 2007, she created “RMB City,” an artificial island built in the 3D virtual world of her online gaming system “Second Life.” RMB resembles a postmodern collage of landmarks, urban over-development, and Chinese landscape painting. While her virtual city is phantasmagorical, it still resembles a traditional Chinese brush painting depicting towns, hills, people, clouds, the sky above, and the earth below.
Viewers around the world could join for free and interact with Cao’s avatar, China Tracy, who acts as both guide and interpreter as she engages in a simulated romance with her avatar lover. Cao as an artist is a participant and an observer through her avatar. People watching would see a city that resembles Beijing but a city more idealized and even more frightening. While her city has a giant panda floating above it, it also has a huge smokestack that spouts fire. In 2008, the Guggenheim Museum acquired her “RMB: A Second Life Planning By China Tracy” for its permanent collection.
In 2013, her experimental documentary was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale. Her 2014 work, “La Town,” presented a post-apocalyptic cityscape pictured through a cinematic stop-motion animation. In 2016, she held her first solo exhibition at MoMA PS 1, New York. Her 2018 film, “Asia One,” was an installation that considered the significance of automation on the human body.
In 2020, Acute Art launched works by nine artists, and the app has been downloaded over half a million times. One of the augmented reality works is Cao Fei’s “The Eternal Wave AR: Li Nova.” This is a supplement to Cao’s Acute Art-Produced VR (virtual reality) piece recently viewed at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Here a photorealistic little boy, based on Cao’s own son, drinks a soda as turtles fly around his head and asks,”Excuse me, have you seen my Dad?”
Her work has appeared in solo exhibitions in London, California, Netherlands, Paris, and Hong Kong. In 2019, she was the nominator of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme Muse. She has participated in various Triennials and Biennials. Her “Staging the Era” will be her first major solo exhibition in China, consisting of works of her two-decade career. It will continue until June, 2021.
Her work has appeared at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Asia Society, Walker Art Center, and the Guggenheim Museum.