Critics’ Picks

View of “Play Time,” 2011.

New York

Cao Fei

Jane Lombard Gallery
518 West 19th Street
May 18–June 25

Your fingers can shred in Play Time (all works 2011), a sculpture by Cao Fei that shares its title with her fourth solo exhibition at Lombard Fried. Wooden models of monumental architecture—an obelisk, a classical pediment, ziggurats of varying shape—compose a cityscape. But they are obstacles next to the loops and ramps inviting viewers to push miniature skateboards around the sculpture. The video East Wind documents the journey of a truck wearing the face of Thomas the Tank Engine as it travels from a construction site, a zone of imminent future, to a junkyard, the burial grounds of the recent past. It’s shot in the countryside, far from the skyscrapers of Special Economic Zones. A brief video trilogy, Shadow Life, evokes folklore and communist festivals. The vignettes are performed by shadow puppets; the form of the hand is a synecdoche for the manual labor of workers and peasants, while the silhouette medium allows quick metamorphoses of a grandstanding dictator to a barking dog, a swaying tree to a crane transforming the landscape. A remake of a 2000 Russian pop hit serves as the sound track to the third part, Transmigration—a farcical rejoinder to Mao’s cover of Marxism-Leninism.

In her early work, Cao appraised the legacy of her father, a socialist realist sculptor who made images of the perfect society. She later turned to Second Life as a site for realizing the late-capitalist dream of near-instant return on investment. “Play Time” subtly fuses these directions of her work. Cao, unlike Ai Weiwei, does not bluntly say what the West expects to hear about China. Instead, she speaks as a witness to value systems shifting and struggling and ultimately dissolving in a global market that trades mostly in the intangible. From this stance she can shorten the gap between a system promising the attainment of paradise through labor and another where paradise can be purchased. The sweeping social experiments of the twentieth century, receding into history, shrink to toy scale. Ideology of any stripe looks as flimsy—and as vital—as a child’s play.