Born in Guangzhou in 1978 and now based in Beijing, Cao Fei is one of China’s most prominent young artists, known for photographs and videos that combine elements of fantasy and documentary to reflect on cultural shifts since the country’s economic opening at the start of the 1980s.

Since 2007, Cao has taken her work online to the virtual community SecondLife (SL), where users can design their own avatars, create personalized utopias and escape the limitations of reality (all while retaining the comforts of sex and commerce). Using graphics capture programs, she has made films in SL and also created her own city, RMB City, which officially launched earlier this year.

Cao’s RMB City project is the subject of her current exhibition at Shiseido Gallery in Ginza. Among works on display are “i.Mirror” (2007), which follows Cao’s avatar China Tracy as she explores SL for the first time, and a new film commissioned by Shiseido, “Live in RMB City,” in which China Tracy leads her newborn son China Sun on a philosophical tour of their virtual environment.

The Japan Times met with Cao prior to the opening of her exhibition to discuss RMB City and how it relates to her previous work.

Your works prior to RMB City include the “COSplayers” (2004) series of photos and videos following youth in Guangzhou who dress up as their favorite anime and game characters to act out their fantasies. How much of your work is fictional or staged and how much of it is documentary?

I’ve always been interested in documentary, but more than that I’m interested in the idea of drama within the documentary, or the aspects of drama that emerge in daily life. It’s hard to say exactly how much is fiction or nonfiction.

In that sense, SL is clearly a realm of fantasy, and yet you are documenting actual events and interactions that take place there; the people that appear in your films are not characters scripted in an animation, they are actors playing improvised roles.

I do feel that RMB City is part of a process that connects my earliest works to my present projects. As you say, the element of fantasy is there, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily opposed to reality. If you ask why I like the genre of “docu-drama,” it’s because I believe that fantasy and reality are part of the same parcel. Similar to what you might see in a mirror, they are reflections of one and the other.

Why did you start making work in SL?

At the start of 2007 a friend introduced me to SL and suggested that I try it out. I quickly realized that it was not simply a game but also an alternative society. Coincidentally, around that time I was asked to make a work for the China Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale. I still didn’t completely understand SL but I had an instinctual sense that it could turn into something interesting.

The experience was complex, too, in that during the filming process I developed a relationship with a male avatar that drew on my “real” feelings and experiences. People ask me whether that love story was real or fake. Of course there were aspects of both involved because when you film in SL you have to interact with other people but you also try to preserve a sense of impartiality. It became very hard to disentangle emotions and objectivity.

To someone who is not Chinese, contemporary China already appears like a virtual reality: old neighborhoods disappear overnight to be replaced by massive development projects. Does the virtual RMB City respond directly to the “virtuality” of real China?

Considering the current speed of development in China, there are very many rapid changes in the urban landscape that have an aspect of unreality, but the fundamentals of daily life are real.

On the other hand, I live in an area that is similar to Ginza [an upmarket district in Tokyo]. During the recent national day celebrations, a parade of tanks passed down the avenue beneath my window, against the backdrop of the Gucci store and other boutiques. It was a very strange sight.

China was of course established as a socialist nation, but it’s also evolved into a commercially driven culture. Seeing this mix of “Red” spirit and consumer branding encapsulated contemporary China for me. The virtual aspect of China is that these two contradictory impulses can coexist.

“Live in RMB City” at the Shiseido Gallery runs till Dec. 20, closed Mon.; admission free; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information visit www.shiseido.co.jp/e/gallery/html/index.htm

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