Cao Fei: Daydream, Games and Virtual Reality

Text by 撰文 x Chris Berry, Zhan Xuhua 湛旭華,裴開瑞

Translated and edited by 翻譯及編輯 x Angel Chun 秦文娟

Cao Fei was born and raised in Guangzhou, the “Southern Gateway” to China’s reform and opening up process that began in the 1980s, introducing the market economy to China and turning the country into a major international trading nation. Her art has always focused on the relations between ordinary people and various issues in Chinese society, including youth culture, urbanization, risk society, the impact of the Internet, globalisation and more. She combines keen observation with elements drawn from popular culture, ranging from street culture, to performance, virtual reality, video games, animation, toys and Hollywood zombie movies, creating playful yet critical artworks.

Cao has been an active artist since graduating from university. Several of her early works, such as Chain Reaction (2000), the Hip Hop Series (2003), and Cosplayers (2004), present Chinese young people bringing the digital virtual world into offline real life, They are dramatic, performative and highly distinctive. . In the U-thèque collective, together with Ou Ning and Huang Weikai, Cao made the documentary video San Yuan Li in 2003. This marks a shift to broader her focus from concerns about the vicissitudes of the younger generation to the society and humanity in general. In Whose Utopia? (2006), she observes and depicts migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta area and the gap between their dreams and reality. I.Mirror (2007) and RMB City (2007 – 2011) reflect Cao’s source of inspiration turning from social reality to virtual reality. Constructing an avatar — ‘China Tracy’ – in the online game Second LifeI.Mirror (2007) explores the problems faced by not only China but also the world under globalisation: identity issues, ethics and understanding virtual reality in the digital age.

After becoming a mother, Cao Fei discovered a new link between her own interests and popular culture from her child’s favourite cartoon. East Winds (2011) records the journey of a Chinese-manufactured East Wind-brand truck, which has the smiling face of Thomas the Tank Engine tied to its grill. It barrels across urban highways to deliver refuse from a construction site in the city (somewhere in the near future) to a dump at the city’s edge (somewhere the past is buried). Same Old, Brand New (2015) was commissioned for the Art Basel Hong Kong 2015: playing on the LED façade of the International Commerce Centre (ICC)—the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong — a large-scale animation synchronized to sound piece references iconic images from 1980s video games Pac Man and Tetris. In front of the Victoria Harbour, a symbol of Hong Kong’s century of prosperity, the huge screen with a Pac-Man lighting up the night sky seems to devour dreams.

The history of virtual reality toys can be traced back 400 years, because the doll’s house can be understood as the first toy of this kind for children. Starting in 2014, Cao Fei constructed a utopian/dystopian city called ‘La Town’ with miniature models she shopped from Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. Museums exist side by side with flooded railway platforms, crumbling McDonald’s, slums, a vulgar fountain with a statue of Venus, violence, murder and looting, as well as sunny beaches somewhere in the outskirts and beautiful scenery. Accompanied by rousing music, this stop-motion film depicts the history and fate of a fictional city, reflecting the reality of many countries and cities around the world. A far cry from the ideal home constructed in the traditional doll’s house, but the various social problems caused by globalisation and high level of capitalist development are captured in this miniature city video of forty minutes, reminding us that what we are facing is a common crisis.

Elements such as games, daydreams, fantasies, fiction and reality run through Cao Fei’s creative practice. The social problems and the political and economic landscape of China and the world are fertile sources of her inspiration. She illustrates her thought about of the era through her artworks, which have become ever more incisive after her twenty year-long artistic career.

Working together with the Experimenta programme of the British Film Institute and King’s College London, the sixth Chinese Visual Festival (CVF) focuses on Cao Fei. CVF is pleased to present “Cao Fei: It’s a Game”, a retrospective screening of eight of the artist’s moving image works from 2000-2015, to introduce her video art and creative trend to British audiences.

La Town-Center Plaza_2014

La Town Center Plaza 2014

ART.ZIP: Why is the narrative of La Town in French? Why is it a woman who claims she has seen and the man who insists she has not? Is gender important for this work?

CF: The first thing is that the sound of French is nice. It creates an irrelevant ‘exotic’ atmosphere that contradicts that in the image itself. Also, the narrative of La Town is adapted from the screenplay of the film, Hiroshima Mon Amour. In the film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, a nuclear bomb in Hiroshima signifies doomsday. This image is extended to La Town, an unknown city of the future, where what was once perceived as “doomsday” has become an everyday disaster. The film shuttles us back and forth between the global microcosm of La Town and our own reality today.

ART.ZIP: Most of your work is clearly Chinese in setting, and it’s about China or specific places in China. In La Town, the high-speed train is Chinese, but there are plenty of signs in English. You seem to be moving towards a sort of generic, global space. Is that right? Why?

CF: La Town is a work of total fiction. The world is post-apocalyptic. There is no “La Town” in the world but according to the myth I have created, it is a town that has existed in many different parts of the world in many different time periods. Literally, I combined models from many different cultures and time periods. I mixed them all together. So there is a German supermarket that has a deal on bratwurst; a McDonald’s; the movie theater playing Gone with the Wind; the famous fountain from Nuremberg, “The Little Gooseman”; Santa Claus with his sleigh; and a high-speed train. This is the space of buffet culture: you can have sushi, a bowl of borscht and Cantonese-style dim sum all in one meal on one small table.

ART.ZIP: In RMB City you built a kind of fantasy city in Second Life. This time (in La Town) you are using maquettes and toy cars and trains to build another fantasy city. Can you tell us about why you find these spaces fascinating? And why did you want to work with these maquettes and models this time?

In both La Town and your other recent work, Haze and Fog, there is a sense of doom and impending disaster. In fact, La Town is less playful than even Haze and Fog. What’s worrying you so much?

CF: La Town (2014) is my next step after Haze and Fog (2013). Our era after the global economic recession is like entering an ice age. Society cannot find a way forward, and it is just like being lost in a haze. A kind of horror and fear permeates most pop culture or films that feature fog. To me, it is this situation, full of uncertainty, that I, as an artist or an individual, am basing my practice in.

Maquettes and models remove the limits of real life shooting. I can play with different scenes. For example, when I was working on La Town (2014), the idea of filming a museum setting came out at the end, and so we went to Buro Ole Scheeren to borrow the museum model.

ART.ZIP: Guangdong is the region where you grew up. Since early 1990s, Guangzhou has been the centre of avant-garde art in South China: with groups ranging from Big Tail Elephants (Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin, and Xu Tan), Ou Ning’s U-thèque, Borges Libreria, Observation Society (Hu Xiangqian, Anthony Yung Tsz Kin etc), and Video Bureau (Zhu Jia, Chen Tong, Fang Lu), to Huang Bian Station (Xu Tan, Huang Xiaopeng), as well as individual artists such as Qin Jin and Zhou Tao. This time for Experimenta at the BFI Southbank, we are co-curating the ‘Pulse of the Pearl River Delta’ session to introducing these artists to British audiences. What are the interactions and mutual influences between you and these independent avant-garde groups and artists?

CF: Guangzhou is a long way from the centre of the art market, both culturally and politically. In relative isolation, no matter how big or small the organisations or artist groups are, they were born with a different kind of charm – independent, dynamic, self-reflective and unique in their artistic language and their stance towards their observed subjects.

The members of Big Tail Elephants are mostly students of my parents (both of whom taught at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts) and born in the 1980s. Many young artists were my classmates, or came after me at the academy. This circle is not big, but somehow it encapsulates the whole art world of the Pearl River Delta region. On the southern boundaries of China, where criminals were once exiled to and revolutions began, the Pearl River Delta is its unique culture that has shaped all of the artists from there. If the north of the country is the cultural power centre, then art in the Pearl River Delta naturally avoid the restrictions that go with such a hierarchical situation and perceive reality in a more open, natural, sincere and insightful way.

ART.ZIP: The impact of the reform and opening up policy in South China appears often in your works created in Guangzhou before 2006. But after your relocation to Beijing, your works have been more diverse, as seen in Haze and Fog. How has this geopolitical transformation influenced your creative path, way of thinking, and the key issues to consider and discuss?

CF: Beijing — Insecurity. As a city of immigrants, people compete for the resources and no one relates to the land emotionally. We are all outsiders. There are isolation and loneliness in all this rapid consumption, as well as insecurity and depression. Haze and Fog (2013), RMB City (2007 – 2011) and La Town (2014) could be seen as marking a watershed. In terms of time, these are works I made in Beijing – after I left my hometown of Guangzhou in 2006. In terms of space, they are depict architecture and social space. This is true of RMB City – a ‘digital city’ in Second Life’s virtual space; the 1:87 maquette designed to depict the ‘end of the world’ — La Town; — and Haze and Fog – the modern concrete housing compound in Beijing permeated with a vague sense of paradox and a blurring between the real and virtual world. For me, these have been the years of marriage, having babies and being a mother of two. Time seems to have slowed down, yet the current of the river of life is bringing out new sensibilities.

ART.ZIP: This following question is about virtual reality: In your works such as RMB City and La Town, the virtual world and reality are connected in many ways. What do you think of people’s double identities online and offline, and the phenomena of online personas?

CF: Second Life is an online would supported by numerous internet servers, copying the values of the real world, with the dark side of human nature, yet also making it possible for individuals to create their fantasies. RMB City has become my window on the virtual world and an important cross-cultural experiment. We are facing a new assemblage of individuality and the world with the close relationship of the virtual and the real but also the tearing up of the original relationship. To be part of this live, on site and in person is the only way to feel the happiness and sorrow of this age – and to find new ways in the unknown.

If Whose Utopia? (2006) is an exploration of the fantasies of and hopes for utopia under the constraints of globalized capital, La Town (2014) would be rebirth after doomsday – where we turn to the narrative of dystopia in response to all the questions Whose Utopia? asked and collapse of the global system in La Town.


從大學時代曹斐就開始了影像創作。她的的幾部早期作品如《鏈》(2000)、嘻哈系列作品和以Cosplay表現中國年輕一代從數碼虛擬世界中走入真實生活的《角色》(2004),都帶有強烈的戲劇、表演和個人色彩。 從以緣影會名義曹斐與歐寧、黃偉凱合作創作的《三元裏》(2003)開始,曹斐的創作從關註青年一代的迷惘、躁動和反抗,轉向了對社會和人性更深層的關懷。她以整體的宏觀角度去觀察描繪了珠三角外來工理想與現實間的差距,作品《誰的烏托邦》(2006) 開啟了以藝術與社會間一種新的溝通方式。《我.鏡》(2007)和《人民城寨》(2007-2011)是曹斐的創作從依托社會現實觀察,轉向虛擬現實的代表作。 《我.鏡》通過以線上遊戲‘第二人生’構建的虛擬角色“中國翠西”探討全球化下中國和世界共同面對的問題: 身份認知、數字時代的倫理及對虛擬真實的理解。

成為母親之後的曹斐從孩子喜愛的卡通找到流行文化與她興趣愛好的結合點:《東風》(2011)以紀錄片的形式記錄了一輛打扮成英國著名動畫形象‘托馬斯小火車’的國產“東風”牌卡車的旅程:從城市經濟特區的建築工地(不遠的未來之地)開到了垃圾場(埋葬過去之地) 。為香港巴塞爾藝術博會創作的《樂舊.圖新》(2015):在香港地標環球貿易廣場大樓外立面上,巨大的LED顯示屏播放著八十年代那些我們耳熟能詳的電子遊戲制作的聲光裝置動畫,面對象征香港百年繁榮的維多利亞港, 夜空中屏幕閃動著巨大的‘吃豆人’遊戲吞噬了夢想。

最早的虛擬現實玩具的歷史可以追索到四百年前的微縮模型娃娃屋。2014年曹斐以購自淘寶上的袖珍模型親手構建了烏托邦城市‘La Town’ (2014),一個兩極城市:美術館、淹水的站臺、破敗的麥當勞、貧民區、粗俗的維納斯噴泉、暴力、謀殺、搶掠與郊外某處的陽光海灘、良辰美景共存,在轟隆的樂聲中這組模型和以此制作的定格影片描繪一座虛構城市的歷史與命運,然而,它恰恰是全球許多國度和城市的真實寫照。這微縮城市誠然與傳統袖珍模型娃娃屋構建的那個理想家園相去甚遠,我們的社會面對全球化和高度資本主義發展所帶來的種種問題濃縮定格在這40多分鐘的影片裏,提醒我們面對的是一個共同的危機。


第六屆華語視像藝術節將聯合英國電影協會(BFI) ‘實驗場’項目和倫敦大學國王學院聚焦曹斐,舉辦“曹斐:一場遊戲”回顧影展,以她2000-2015年間創作的包括《La Town》等八部影像作品介紹她的影像藝術與創作思潮。

ART.ZIP: 為什麽作品《La Town》中的敘述是以法語展開的? 為什麽片中聲稱看見了的是女聲而男聲則堅持她沒看見?性別在這件作品中重要嗎?

CF: 首先是法語的語調很好聽,能制作出和影像之間反差出某種和圖像無關的“異國情調”。 《La Town》中的敘述參考了電影《廣島之戀》的劇本,當年廣島原子彈爆炸象征的末日圖景,一直延伸到未來不可知的La Town,而昔日的“末日”,已經成為了日常災難,穿梭於無論是虛構的全球微縮景觀的La Town還是我們的現實。

ART.ZIP: 你大部分的作品都是關於中國或中國的特定地方,有著很清晰的中國背景。但在《La Town》中,雖然高鐵是中國的,但也有很多標誌是英文的。你似乎也在朝著一種貫通的,世界的空間發展,是這樣嗎?為什麽呢?

CF:《La Town》是一件純屬虛構的作品,構建了一個後啟示錄世界。世界上並不真有La Town這個地方,但在我創造的神話故事中,她存在於世界各地各個年代。說白了就是我融合了許多不同年代不同文化中的各種模型,所以在裏面既有賣香腸的德國超市、麥當勞、一家正在放映《飄》的劇院,也有舊天鵝堡裏的小抱鵝人噴泉、聖誕老人和他的雪橇,還有中國的高鐵。這是一個自助餐文化地帶,你可以在同一個不太大的環形餐臺上獲取日本壽司的同時,吃到羅宋湯以及廣東點心。

ART.ZIP: 在《人民城寨》中,你在遊戲第二人生裏建構了一座幻想城市,而這次在《La Town》中你使用模型,玩具車和玩具火車來建築另一座幻想的城市。你可以跟我們說說這些空間如何吸引你,而你這次選擇了模型和小人偶的原因是什麽嗎?《La Town》和另一件近期作品Haze and Fog《霾》裏都有一種末日和即將有災難發生的氣氛,其中《La Town》比《霾》要少了幾分玩味。你在擔心什麽嗎?

CF:《La Town》是我拍攝《霾》的補充。全球經濟衰退後的時間就好比是進入了冰河期,整個社會群體都是找不著北的狀況, 與迷失在霧霾中無異。所有與霧有關的流行文化和電影中也總是彌漫著一股恐懼,我作為一個藝術家或個人就是在這一種不安之中來創作的。使用模型與人偶可以擺脫在現實生活中拍攝的限制,我可以擺弄各種場景。像在《La Town》的創作中,拍攝美術館的想法是最後才出現的,然後我們才和奧雷•舍人(在北京的德國籍建築師)借來一座博物館模型。

ART.ZIP: 你成長於廣東,90年代初開始,廣州一直是南中國先鋒藝術活躍的中心,如90年代大尾象工作組(陳劭雄、梁鉅輝、林一林、徐坦)、歐寧和緣影會、博爾赫斯書店、後來的觀察社(胡向前、翁子健等人)、錄像局(朱加、陳侗、方璐)、黃邊站(徐坦、黃小鵬),到秦晉、周滔等,這次為BFI我們合作策劃了《影像珠三角》單元,通過作品對英國觀眾介紹90年代末至2000年頭一個十年活躍於廣東的這些藝術家。這些獨立先鋒藝術群體、藝術家與你之間有什麽樣的互動和相互影響?

CF: 廣州,一個遠離文化與政治中心的城市相對於北方強勢的藝術業態來看,顯得那麽邊緣化,無論規模或從業的藝術家或團體機構,但由此卻生發出一種獨立的魅力:生猛、自省、具獨特的藝術語言和觀察對象。



ART.ZIP: 你2006年前在廣州時期的創作可以看出有很多南中國改革開放的沖擊和痕跡,但你搬到北京後作品走向明顯有了很多不同的關註,如《霾》裡,這個地緣的轉變對你的創作路徑,思維方式,考慮和討論問題的重點有怎樣的影響?

CF: 不安全感、移民城市、人們搶奪各種資源、沒有人對這個土地產生感情、都是異鄉客、人在各種快速消費和不安中,抑郁中產生的離散孤獨之感。《霾》、《人民城寨》和《La Town》這三組作品可以與此前作品之間比作一個分水嶺,從時間維度,它們是我2006年離開中國南方我的出生地廣州移居北京後的創作,其中以RMB City project創作時間跨度最長(2007-2011);其次,在空間維度上,它們都與建築場域、社會空間有關,無論是《人民城寨》在‘第二人生’虛擬世界建造的“數字城市”,還是由1:87的實體建築模型組合成的末日世界《La Town》,抑還是《霾》北京現代化小區的水泥鋼筋混凝土,都彌漫著某種不確切的自相矛盾,虛擬與真實之間互為變焦;而在我個人層面,這些年我經歷了婚姻和生育,作為兩名孩子的母親,時光似乎有所放緩,但人生的河流,把感受力重新沖刷,並拓寬了河床。

ART.ZIP: 這個問題是關於虛擬現實Virtual Reality的,從你的作品 – 如《人民城寨》和《La Town》等有許多虛擬與現實的聯系,你怎麽看待人們線上線下的雙重身份,在網上的假面等現象?

CF: Second Life 這個由無數服務器支撐的網格世界,既復制來自真實世界的價值觀和人類黑暗角落,也給予創建個人幻想的可能,由此,《人民城寨》成為了我在虛擬世界的觀察窗,一個非常重要的跨文化實驗場。我們今天正面臨個體與世界之間新的聚合(虛擬和現實之間的彌合,舊有關系的撕裂),投身於這些“現場”,成為它們的一分子,才能感知這個時代的樂與痛,並在這個充滿不確定的未知中尋找新的可能性。如果說《誰的烏托邦》是對一種由全球化資本鏈條下中被壓抑、限制的烏托邦願景中對幻想與熱望的探尋, 那麽《La Town》末日之後的重生,仿佛讓人去往反烏托邦式的敘事中,也即是從之前《Whose Utopia?》作品的“拷問句式”到對在《La Town》中全球系統壞崩的回應一種回應。

i.Mirror 2007

I. Mirror (2007)

All photos ©Vitamin Creative Space& Cao Fei


Experimenta at the BFI Southbank

This May’s Experimenta of BFI includes “It’s a Game” and “Pulse of Pearl River Delta” co-curated by Cao Fei and Zhan Xuhua. The latter features video art works by Chinese artist Chen Shaoxiong’s Landscape-2, (1996), Ou Ning, Cao Fei, Huang Weikai’s San Yuan Li (2003), Hu Xiangqian’s Blue Flags Waving (2006), Zhou Tao’s 1, 2, 3, 4 (2007-2008), Qin Jin’s Nine DaysEight Months and Twenty Nine Years (2009), and Huang Xiaopeng’s My Red and Bright Heart (2011) to showcases the avant-garde video art development of Canton area.

BFI’s “Experimenta” (formerly Essential Experiments) screens films by artists from around the world that use the moving image to change the way we think of film and how it functions. The monthly programme is accompanied by talks involving the artists. These artists work in a variety of formats and styles to investigate not only the subject but the very medium itself, whether digital or celluloid, to challenge the distinction between form and content and to inspire us to new interpretations of our world and its construction through images.

BFI ‘實驗場’項目

2016年5月的 BFI ‘實驗場’(Experimenta) 項目除‘曹斐:一場遊戲’回顧影展外, 曹斐與湛旭華合作為BFI策劃“影像珠三角”單元。精選陳劭雄《風景-2》、歐寧、曹斐、黃偉凱《三元裏》,胡向前《藍旗飄飄》, 周滔《1,2,3,4》,秦晉《二十九年八個月零九天》和黃小鵬《我的那顆紅色的和明亮的心》反映與她同時代的先鋒影像藝術在南中國的發展。

BFI “實驗場” (Experimenta)是英國電影協會南岸中心舉辦,專註於藝術移動影像、先鋒和實驗電影研究的月度放映長期項目:研究範圍從先鋒藝術到當代數碼作品等不同類型跨界影像藝術,通過展映、策展人、學者、藝術家的交流講座探討影像、電影與藝術的內在聯系和各種潛在可能性。


  1. Hu,F (2010). Second Life as the Shooting Location. Dong,B., Du,Q., Huang,J., Zhu,Z.ed. Looking Throutgh Film: Traces of Cinema and Self-Constructs in Contemporary Art. pp92-97.
  2. Hou,H( 2004). ‘Canton Express’. Yishu- Journal Of Contemporary Chinese Art . Vol. 3, pp14-16.
  3. Fokianaki,I (2015), “From La Town, to La Town, La Town From China and Venice to Greece”,LEAP issue 37.p112-116
  4. Wai, A.M. “The Different Worlds of Cao Fei.” Yishu- Journal Of Contemporary Chinese Art 11, no. 3 (May 2012). pp82-90.
  5. Ou,N. “Shadow of Time.” Yishu- Journal Of Contemporary Chinese Art . Vol. 3, No. 3 (Mar 2004). pp63-69.
  6. Pollarck,B. “As China Evolves, the Chinese Artist Cao Fei Is Watching”. In The New York Times. Apr 1, 2016
  7. Rosenberg,K. “CAO FEI: ‘Play Time.’” In The New York Times. May 26, 2011.
  8. Wang, X.(2014) Cao Fei talk about La Town. In Artforum . Sep 2014.


  1. 《從電影看:當代藝術的電影痕跡與自我建構》內文《作為外景地的“第二人生”》,2010,作者:胡昉,編著:董冰峰/杜慶春/黃建宏/朱朱,新星出版社
  2. 《Yishu 典藏國際版》,2004年3月號,《Canton Express》, 作者:侯瀚如
  3. 《藝術界》37期《From La Town, to La Town, La Town From China and Venice to Greece》,2015,作者: Iliana Fokianaki
  4. 《Yishu 典藏國際版》,2012年6月號,《The Different World of Cao Fei》,作者:Alice Ming Wai Jim
  5. 《Yishu 典藏國際版》,2004年3月號,《Shadows of Time》,作者:歐寧
  6. 《New York Times》 ,2016年4月1日,《As China Evolves, the Chinese Artist Cao Fei Is Watching》,作者:Barbara Pollack

7.《藝術論壇》,2014年9月號,《曹斐談新作<La Town>》,采訪:王辛


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