New York

Cao Fei, La Town, 2014, video, color, sound, 41 minutes 58 seconds.

Cao Fei, La Town, 2014, video, color, sound, 41 minutes 58 seconds.

Cao Fei

MoMA PS1

Cao Fei, La Town, 2014, video, color, sound, 41 minutes 58 seconds.

Recently in these pages, artforum.com associate editor Dawn Chan argued that for many East Asian artists, success on the international exhibition circuit is contingent on their willingness to appeal to the “techno-Orientalist” fantasies of Western curators. Few artworks seem more indicative, if not outright parodic, of this predicament than Cao Fei’s RMB City, 2007–11, a floating island constructed in the simulated ocean expanses of Second Life. Much like the Panzani pasta ad that Roland Barthes decoded as connoting “Italianness,” renderings of RMB City abound with Sino-signifiers. A panda, a statue of Chairman Mao, and the CCTV tower all flit into view while Cao’s digital surrogate, China Tracy, acts as the city’s de facto spokesperson, travel agent, and real estate broker. It’s apparent enough how such a work could be instrumentalized as a biennial’s requisite emblem of the Pacific Century. This midcareer retrospective—i.e., a “look back,” organized by Klaus Biesenbach and Jocelyn Miller—was an opportunity to consider Cao from a counterperspective: not as an avatar of the future, but as an artist of her time.

Seen alongside twenty years’ worth of Cao’s video and photography, RMB City came off as an outlier—as well as outmoded. Launched in 2003, the online platform Second Life drew inspiration from the discourse on virtual reality, a vision of corporeal experience uploaded into “cyberspace.” However, most subsequent collisions of culture and technology have yielded conditions of augmented reality, wherein everyday life is overlaid with fields of information. (Compare the niche market for consumer-grade VR headsets like Oculus Rift with the overnight ubiquity of the game app Pokémon Go.) A logic of augmentation—specifically, the superimposition of genre conventions onto China’s urban surrounds—ran throughout the exhibition. Cao’s breakout video, Cosplayers, 2004, portrays teenagers from her hometown of Guangzhou donning manga-inspired outfits as a means of forging their individual and collective identities. In Whose Utopia, 2006, a factory worker with a talent for ballet does pliés in angel wings amid heavy machinery. The hilariously morbid Haze and Fog, 2013, frames a gargantuan Beijing residential complex as an apropos staging ground for zombie horror.

For the exhibition’s final work, La Town, 2014, Cao turned the plastic figurines and buildings of model train sets into the stars and backdrops of a forty-two-minute stop-motion film chronicling the aftermath of an unspecified catastrophe. Like RMB City, La Town shows a metropolis-in-miniature, only rendered in plastic and inspired—as the title’s French-English mash-up intimates—by a more international and incongruous array of reference points. Like Haze and Fog, it showcases Cao’s knack for giving inert or inscrutable locales precise ambiences through editing, sound effects, music cues, and, in this case, a narration patterned off the masculin-féminin dialogue of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. (This combination of train-set miniatures and Nouvelle Vague aesthetics also appears in Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s Traffic #1: Our Second Date, 2004, which reconstructs the famous traffic scene in Godard’s Weekend.) With admirably limited means, La Town taps into current anxieties over ecological catastrophe to the same degree that Resnais’s film evokes the uneasiness of the atomic era. That said, the duration of La Town—among other videos—speaks to a level of ambition the work doesn’t quite support, not without some further development, argument, analysis. A midcareer survey looks back, but it also peers forward. As Cao’s compelling work progresses, perhaps it will offer further insight into how genre might help not just to navigate or cope with the present, but to change it.

Colby Chamberlain