Cao Fei and Chinese Youth Culture

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Cao Fei (photo credit: The New York Times)

By Ariella Tai

Internationally renowned visual artist Cao Fei has recently put on a new show entitled “Play Time,” pieces of which are currently on view at the Lombard-Freid Projects in Chelsea, New York City. The show takes inspiration from children’s television shows like “Thomas and Friends,” “Teletubbies” and the BBC program “The Night Garden,” as well as other forms of youth entertainment, like puppets and miniature skateboards. The New York Times profile observes, “The show seems to be a transitional one for Ms. Cao, who plans to shut down “RMB City” [her acclaimed online interactive environment] this summer. But it has her trademark sensibility: pop and playful on the surface, complex social portrait underneath.” Her reconstruction of Thomas the Tank Engine travels around Beijing as it picks up construction debris and transports it to a large dump near the Summer Palace, while her skate park for tiny skateboards exhibits architecture reflecting the highly developed landscapes of contemporary Chinese cities.

More after the break.

Cao Fei has become known for her explorations of youth subcultures in China, ranging from videos on the lives of Cosplayers to the creation of “RMB City.” In “RMB City,” her avatar “China Tracy” engaged in performances, created videos and games and, in the avatar’s second incarnation, was manipulated by users into various activities within the virtual environment. Her work within this popular online game highlighted her ability to communicate with “a shockingly young audience,” tapping not only into complex underground cultures but also into the fantasy worlds of several of her subjects. Her 2007 video, “Whose Utopia” observes several factory workers in Guangdong acting out their innermost desires to dance ballet, breakdance or play rock musicians within the confines of their factory workplace.

Her 2003 experimental video San Yuan Li, co-directed with artist Ou Ning, reflects her inclinations and talents in their earlier forms. Edited from footage taken by a dozen young artists, this highly stylized, and energetically rhythmic film explores the case of a village that has been physically hemmed in on all sides by the towering skyscrapers of Guangzhou during the city’s rapid modernization. The villagers develop ingenuous ways to make their living and maintain their way of life. This piece, like her later works, takes on the task of “documenting society,” and the ways in which Chinese are affected by the shifting economic and social milieus. She tells the New York Times: “All my experience did not come from art school… It’s from growing up in the early 1990s in the south of China.” Continually interested in collaboration and interaction with her audiences, she is strongly connected to the context of her experiences and art.

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