A Programmer's Chronicles 16, August 2007
by Gertjan Zuilhof
On my way to the office of the Alternative Archive in Peking, I briefly thought I was a victim of the present hurried advance of China. The office was on the 20th floor of an office building that is modest within the Pekinese context. It could have been a block of student flats. When I got into the lift, I thought I heard stones falling on the roof of the cabin, but the Chinese around me looked imperturbable. Halfway up, a lift cable snapped. I was never able to conceive in advance what that would sound or feel like, but the film maker who showed me the way knew exactly what was going on and calmly pushed the button for the next floor. There we took a different but identical lift. No one thought it was necessary to call the concierge of the building. Seconds later someone else on their way home could get in the same lift, on the phone to their daughter. That’s China too. They build a hundred bridges a day and one of them always collapses.
Alternative Archive is a project set up by Cao Fei. She’s a young artist who does all kinds of things in a humorous and playful way. She also makes films and that’s why I went to look her up. I briefly thought I had ended up in the offices of an advertising agency where the young artist might have a job on the side, but in the pleasant apartment-like office, everyone was working for Cao Fei. She expresses herself in all conceivable media and so she also has an extensive blog. The way that goes, my visit was also thoroughly documented. The result can still be seen (and for those with a command of Chinese, it can also be read) at Guest from Rotterdam.
Cao Fei is obviously an artist of the MTV-YouTube-Second-Life generation. She spends a lot of time in Second Life She calls her film i-Mirror a documentary, but in Second Life there is missing nothing to document. Everything is for science-fiction. Cheerful (self) deception. The film is a love story, but then without love. An encounter between her avatar China Tracey and an interesting young guy who eventually turns out to be a middle-aged man. Yet it's a beautiful story because the young woman and the older man share their melancholy vision of the fake world. In a way they visit each other's dreams and fantasies, which they can then manipulate and play on. A game for people for whom the real world is too real. The Second-Life film i-Mirror of Cao Fei can be seen in three parts on her YouTube site.
The sequel to the adventures of Cao Fei’s avatar China Tracy in Second Life will be the construction of a complete city in Second Life. Condensation of everything that is grand, gripping and extravagant about the present Chinese city. Probably even more racy and hurried than the real metropolis. With even more plummeting lifts and collapsing bridges. She has already promised to make the CCTV building, designed by Rem Koolhaas, collapse. Yes, this versatile and over-productive artist also has a sense of humour.
Cao Fei is in great demand as an artist right now. She was also briefly in Holland. In 2005 she presented her work PRD (Pearl River Delta) Anti-Heroes in Museum het Domein in Sittard. I don't visit Sittard every day and unfortunately missed that exhibition.
Also in 2005 she showed her Cosplay Project in De Appel in Amsterdam. There's a nice video to document the occasion. The short video Cosplayers from 2005 basically covers all her themes, versatility is, contradictions and not to forget - as I already mentioned - her sense of humour. Her cosplayers kind of game, manga and fantasy warriors who play their games and battle in contemporary often urban locations. Even when they move out into the countryside, you can still see apartment blocks on the horizon.
Since her visit to the Netherlands in 2005, her star has risen rapidly. She is represented at the Biennial in Venice until 21 November with a major work. In an inflatable balloon-like space, she presents her Second-Life world.
The film mentioned above can be seen, but there are also kindergarten-like spaces where visitors can take part in the virtual world themselves. I have to admit I first paid a very brief visit to the balloon pavilion. Thanks to the Venetian sun and many heated art visitors, the balloon was very hot and the Second-Life images struck me as very trendy at first sight. Air-conditioning and more concentration made it clear that Cao Fei was primarily playing a clever game with fashion and trends and cannot really be described as being trendy herself. And she doesn’t only hang around in the virtual world. Basically all her works and expressions comprise references to present-day social reality in China. For instance she completed an art project for the Osram lamp factory in China that included a social psychological investigation into the imagination of people on the factory floor. A festive, crazy yet also serious project in which the fantasy of the employees is taken seriously. She seems to jump back and forth between amateur theatre and advanced media art and seems to feel at home in all the intervening domains.
And I also had a question for her. Whether she would like to make a contribution to the next Rotterdam festival. And she wasn’t averse to that either.