Cao Fei, a young Beijing-based artist originally from Guangzhou who was previously known for provocative videos juxtaposing fantasy characters and gritty urban locales, has been exploring Second Life since 2006. She transforms her adventures there into artworks that have gained her a large international following. At Lombard-Freid Projects, she recently presented a pair of related works–i.Mirror, a three-part video shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale that she describes as a “virtual documentary” of her life in alternate reality, and “RMB City,” a project involving virtual real-estate sales that was included, in a different form, in the 2007 Istanbul Biennial.
Both works offer more conventionally grounded viewers an insight into the peculiar relationship between off-line and virtual reality. i.Mirror introduces us to China Tracy, Cao Fei’s Second Life avatar. She is a sexy young Chinese woman whose outfits include formfitting silver armor and knee-high fur boots worn with a miniskirt. The longest section of i.Mirror presents China’s meeting with Hug Yue, a Chinese youth with long blond hair and the world-weary air of a Romantic poet. She first encounters him playing the piano in an open plaza. From what appears to be another location, she joins him on electric guitar. They are seen together and separately in various settings–on a subway car that sails out of the city and into a verdant jungle before morphing into a hot air balloon, in a deserted diner, walking down a desolate alley that is suffused with light when China is joined by Yue. Their dialogue appears in a typewritten line across the bottom of the screen, as their actual communication did when they first met in cyberspace.
Gradually it is revealed that China’s handsome young swain is actually a 60-something American, though in Second Life–where, as China notes, one can be young forever–this doesn’t seem to be a big problem. After a number of encounters marked by ambivalent, semi-philosophical conversations whose desultory tone is reminiscent of French New Wave cinema, they say good-bye and return to their first-life selves.
Framing this narrative are two shorter video sections that evoke the flavor of the Second Life universe. The first of these offers a survey of the geography of Second Life, opening with a variety of For Sale signs indicating the availability of real estate in the virtual world. We are then taken on an excursion through forbidding modernist high rises, toxic landscapes, upscale beach houses and the interior of an art museum. The closing section presents a montage of avatars that inhabit Second Life, ranging from blood-spattered Goths and exotic dancers to stylish trend setters and anthropomorphized dogs and cats.
Throughout, i.Mirror re-creates scenes of urban dislocation and anomie similar to those that appeared as the real-life backdrop of one of Cao Fei’s earlier videos, which was filmed in her native Guangzhou. Titled COSPlayers (2006), it depicts young people in superhero and cartoon-character costumes playacting their way through the city. Many of the settings in the Second Life video’s landscape have a dystopic air, and despite the avatars’ ability to enact fantasies of unlimited movement while inhabiting impossibly glamorous personas, their world is tinged with melancholy, as when China Tracy’s paramour abandons his hipster avatar for an old-man persona that is presumably closer to his first life identity. At one point, the message scrolling across the bottom of the screen notes, “To go virtual is the only way to forget the real darkness.”
The second installation in the Lombard-Freid show, “RMB City” (RMB is the abbreviated term for Chinese currency, making the title mean, roughly, Money Town), was more upbeat. It offered an unfinished three-dimensional model in crisp white wood and plastic, a variety of colorful digital C-prints and a video fly-through, all promoting a new Asian island city Cao Fei is building, as China Tracy, in Second Life. “RMB City” is a collage of elements from contemporary China, ranging from familiar stereotypes like a flying Panda and a statue of a gesticulating Mao half sunk in the harbor, to landmarks of both Chinese history and its frantic recent development. High-rise structures are jammed together, factory chimneys spew fire, Tiananmen Square has become a swimming pool, the Three Gorges Dam is a giant fountain, and Beijing’s China Central Television building is suspended above it all by a crane. The gallery installation was arranged to suggest a real-estate office, in which parts of the city that China Tracy is developing were offered for sale: in Second Life, that transaction is in virtual dollars (redeemable, at a steep discount, in the real world); patrons of Cao Fei’s work can lease elements of her virtual real-estate portfolio for two-year stretches (payable in real-world cash).
In many ways, Second Life is the ultimate fulfillment of some of postmodern theory’s more provocative formulations–for instance, it offers a remarkably convincing version of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, a condition in which the “real” dissolves into an abstract network of signs. Similarly, postmodernism’s much touted notion of the self as a social construction becomes literal here, as people assemble their avatars from a variety of characteristics available in the virtual marketplace, transforming identity into pure commodity.
In the end, one is left with unanswered questions about Second Life and its attraction. Does the virtual universe provide an outlet for the imagination in a world otherwise lacking in individual freedom? More specifically, does Cao Fei’s use of it constitute an oblique criticism of contemporary China, where capitalist enterprise and real-estate development are carried on at breakneck speed beneath the eye of an ever-watchful Big Brother? Or is Second Life simply the latest version of Soma, the dream-inducing drug that controls and pacifies the population in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World? Cao Fei suggests that the truth is somewhere in the middle–that, as China Tracy remarks at one point, “We are not who we originally are and yet we remain unchanged.”