Cao Fei explores art and the city

By Chen Guang and Claire Li Yingxue

http://culturaljournalismcampus.org/

If there’s one artwork in Hong Kong that has been literally impossible to miss these last few days it’s Cao Fei’s Same Old, Brand New. The massive video installation takes up the whole 490-metre facade of the city’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Kowloon.

The walls of the ICC light up with images from classic 1980s video games such as Pac-Man, taking its inspiration reflecting, Cao said, the classic image of Hong Kong people in that decade “looking down to play video games, looking up to talk business”.

“Video games in the 1980s are the major inspiration in this work”, she said. “For the mainstay of Hong Kong society, their love for video games has a strong sense of nostalgia, which serves as a logo of my work.”

Cao explained some of the thinking behind her first gigantic outdoor project at a panel discussion about new media practices with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programmes at Serpentine Gallery in London, at Art Basel.

Born in Guangzhou and living in Beijing, Cao said being a city-dweller makes her conscious of the evolution of urban cultures.  And that urban sensibility was reflected in her giant Hong Kong work, which she hopes will connect with the local popular culture.

Cao Fei talking about his new artwork. Photo:
Cao Fei talking about his new artwork. Photo:

Cao also shared the thinking behind her earlier city-related projects: RMB City (2007-2010), Haze and Fog (2013), and La Town (2014), marking the first time she discussed these works as a complete concept.

The RMB City project – based around a city she planned and “built”in the virtual reality world of Second Life, was an experiment exploring the creative relationship between real and virtual world, while also reflecting China’s urban and cultural development. Before Cao started the project, she registered in the simulation game under the username China Tracy, and played for six months to know all about the simulation city.Haze and Fog was her exploration of the topic of utopia through a zombie film set in modern China.

“I want to show the fear, nerve of people in Beijing living under the horrible haze and fog, ” Cao said. “I want the Zombies to lead the audience to details of their daily life that they miss.”

La Town was actually filmed on a 2.2-metre by 1.2-metre table in Cao’s studio, where she built the whole city almost single-handed. She used models in a ratio of 1:87 to set the post-apocalyptic scenes.

“I built a night-art museum with bar which was only open from 8pm to 5am, where people can drink beer and watch films,” Cao said. “I believe every city should have an art museum. Artwork needs to be collected.”

But Cao has a question for her audience to address, namely: “Whether the city really exists or belongs to another parallel world.” She wants the whole society to comment, as they did on her ICC piece, using Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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