MoMA Show Presents Images Of A Dystopian China By Cao Fei

MoMA has always been on the short list of museums and galleries that can be depended upon to reveal glimpses of the future of modern art. This time, the Museum of Modern Art is skipping right to the future with a show devoted to images of a post-apocalyptic China.

Multimedia artist Cao Fei’s vision of China’s future is by turns disturbing and playful. The 37-year-old native of Guangzhau, China has spent most of her creative life recording her interpretations of the cultural and economic change that has kept her homeland in a continual state of flux for almost two decades. The eponymous MoMA PS1 show is a retrospective of Cao Fei’s futurist video art. It features installations that combine familiar images from her better known works with screened video of her electronic environmental pieces.

A press release from MoMA describes the show as a display showing the range of Cao Fei’s digital, video, and performance work. Included in the exhibit is COSPlayers, her 2004 photography and video installation devoted to images and footage of members of the CosPlay community dressed as anime characters and interacting in various settings located around Cao Fei’s hometown.

Visitors to the show will also have a chance to see RMB City, part of a series of pieces that combine digital and performance art. Originally created by Cao Fei in 2007, RMB City gained notoriety in some circles because of the artist’s use of Second Life as a setting. Roleplaying as an avatar named “China Tracy,” Cao presented a surreal environment that juxtaposed the naivete of a newly materialist post-Maoist China with cross generational ambivalence towards an increasingly capitalist economy and the changes it will bring. Outsized symbols of material culture exist among monuments to Chairman Mao. Some sections that look like they were designed by the art direction team of an amusement park rather than the pocket protector set at a city planner’s office.

Chloe Foussaines of Surface spoke with Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1 and curator of the exhibition about Cao Fei’s intersectional approach to fantasy and reality as a means to convey the ways change can have a cultural impact.

“From the start, she was poetically rebellious, and highly interested in questioning her reality through the creation of alternate realities.”

Considerably darker, and yet actually more playful and artful is Cao Fei’s 2006 video work, Whose Utopia?. Production line employees at a lighting factory dress up as if they are living in their most dearly held fantasies and act them out against the industrial backdrop of the building where they work. Thematically, it is arguably akin to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark(2000), but it is much less affected and mannered than the feature film. What keeps the work from folding in on itself by dint of the players’ emotional weight is the optimism of the subjects. They dream in spite of their reality and act out their wishes with a fearlessness and glee that is absent from Von Trier’s scripted piece.

Cao Fei’s deep, dark heart of the exhibit is La Town: White Street (2014). Dioramas depict blighted, gray cityscapes of once modern, possibly functionally deluxe buildings. Miniature figures wander among landscapes that represent vernacular architecture from a more prosperous time that have since been co-opted with iconic corporate branded structures. Artnet’s Christian Viveros-Faune’ described Cao Fei’s dystopic styling of La Town as “the future of China and it looks like Detroit—after a Hollywood zombie apocalypse.” In Cao Fei’s darkest vision yet, the quality that unifies her first U.S. solo show at MoMA is present. There is an element of play. It is a grim future told by toys. For some, this might be too light a touch for such a heavy message; for others, this could be the best way to explain how and where the bad economy touched us.

Cao Fei runs from April 3 to August 31 at the first floor main galleries of MoMA PS1. For more information about this and other shows at The Museum of Modern Art, visit their website at:

[Photo by Jessica Hromas/Getty Images]

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