Enter Cao Fei's dystopian virtual world in Simulus

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Cao Fei: Simulus
At the Surrey Art Gallery until June 10

In Cao Fei’s digital videos and flash game installation, fantastical towers crowd an island city, an armour-clad avatar with a baby in her arms soars through space, and a Buddhist monk calmly plies the floodwaters of a postapocalyptic world. The three engaging works that make up the exhibition Simulus form a kind of miniretrospective, not of this media artist’s career to date, but of the astounding online place she created and hosted between 2008 and 2011.

As guest essayist Alice Ming Wai Jim points out, Beijing-based Cao Fei has gained international attention as an artist who combines “game modding with the latest display, social networking, and Web 2.0–enabled technologies to create online participatory media projects”. Best-known of these is her RMB City, built in Second Life, the online virtual world whose “residents” interact through avatars and communicate with each other through instant messaging. Second Life is set up so that residents may spend real money acquiring virtual real estate, building virtual homes and businesses, staying in virtual hotels, and buying virtual furniture, clothing, and hairdos. Cao Fei, whose SL alias is China Tracy, has made remarkable use of the possibilities inherent there.

According to Jim, RMB City is “arguably the most widely acclaimed SLart (art in Second Life) project in both SL and RL (Real Life) art worlds”. Certainly, Cao Fei brought enough RL cred to the project to attract RL art institutions and patrons to commit RL funds to it. This money enabled her and her team of collaborators to develop RMB City in all its extravagant and scary glory, and to host a number of events there.

As seen in the animated video RMB City Planning, Cao Fei’s virtual island metropolis is crazily congested with dazzling and appalling structures, whose familiar forms have been appropriated from landmarks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. These include a giant Ferris wheel, a soaring communications tower, and a geometric puzzle of a building, suspended in midair from a construction crane. Also part of the fantastical mix is an infinity pool created out of a flooded Tiananmen Square and an industrial chimney belching bright flames and dark smoke into the otherwise clear blue sky.

Squashed at the foot of all this wild development are tumbledown houses, half-sunken ships, discarded Communist relics, and a rusted version of the Bird’s Nest stadium, all revealing what Jim describes as “the dystopic underbelly of a future China in late capitalist development”. It’s this play of utopian and dystopian imaging that compels us here: as some buildings soar upward, others collapse, creating a painful tension, even a sense of doom, for the viewer.

In Cao Fei’s other animated video, Live in RMB City, which plays on a monitor in the gallery, China Tracy tours her avatar baby through her virtual world while answering his questions about the nature of virtual identities and relationships and the values that attach themselves to self-reinvention. Apocalypse Tomorrow, Cao Fei’s interactive digital animation game, with its weirdly washed-out colours and weakly hand-drawn images, allows visitors to move a meditating monk avatar through the flooded debris of 21st century, RMB City–style “civilization”. Taken together, Cao Fei’s three works pose a number of unsettling questions about a range of contemporary issues, from state capitalism, overconsumption, and environmental degradation to human rights and the potential for personal freedom (or obliteration) in the virtual world.

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Rosie Brooklyn
Fantastic exhibit. I need to visit agian since so many ideas evoked by the exhibition have stuck with me. Bravo to the Curators at SAG for bringing this important work to Lower Mainland.
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