Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cao Fei Survey

Cao Fei: Utopia
11 July - 22 August 2009

Cao Fei is one of China’s high profile animation artists, one who has gained a lot of exposure in Biennales in recent years with her spectacular video installations. This survey was initiated by the IMA in Brisbane, and it is also travelling to TheNewDowse in Hutt City and the DAG. Obviously it is perceived by those institutions as a crowd-pleaser and it is easy to see why. It is sensual, filled with fantasy, yet also thoughtful. A richly layered, sexy but intellectual practice. Not eye candy.

Utopia has five sections that lock together to make a tightly connected whole. The themes interact, repeat and further elaborate on earlier threads that spiral around leisure, escapism and labour and which sometimes tie in intriguing religious ideas about reincarnation and cosmic illusion with those of digital technologies – in particular the virtual world inhabited by avatars known as Second Life.

The earliest work is COSplayers, a 2004 DVD on a LCD in the Long Gallery that shows teenagers dressed in elaborate manga or videogame hero costumes acting out choreographed duels on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Some of this work was shown in Te Tuhi’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf a couple of years ago and at the time I remember being puzzled by it. It works better here with Cao Fei’s later projects positioned around it.

There is also a suite of large C-type coloured photographs made two years later with similarly dressed characters in tableaux set in city streets and construction sites. Bizarre poses and fantasies of the videogaming imagination are mixed with the mundane realities of daily existence.

A documentary film Whose Utopia also made in 2006 and screened in the adjacent Small Gallery, draws out this aspect - heightens this contrast. It shows workers in an Osram light-bulb factory in the Pearl River delta region performing their monotonous daily tasks: counting wires, pulling levers, packing bulbs etc. The recording of machinery in the early stages of producing filaments and glass tubes is interesting viewing because the brand is so ubiquitous. Those images are then combined with lyrical footage of solo workers performing ballet or dancing in the factory aisles.

Whilst Whose Utopia is poignant, informative and gently didactic, things technically get cranked up several notches in the Main Gallery with the intricacies of digital animation and virtual world construction.

Made in 2006-7, I-Mirror is a three part documentary about the Sci-Fi environment of Second Life. It is amazing, with hypnotic music, gorgeous colour, deep space, the poetry of Octavio Paz, and wonderful dialogue between Cao Fei’s digital persona (China Tracey) and her avatar boyfriend Hug Yue. You can get a sense of it from this Youtube clip of the second section, though the definition is crap. Better to see it properly on a large LCD screen.

This imaginative dreamlike world is so absorbing, and the sensuality of the visual forms and sound so caressing it becomes highly addictive. The fact that it is highly inventive and the stories very smart makes it difficult to leave. You get hooked.

As a projection on a much bigger screen, RMB City is similarly spectacular. The title refers to China’s currency and the DVD features a booming futuristic city that is modelled on Beijing, constructed like a giant oil rig in the middle of the ocean. This wondrously complex cluster of buildings, cranes, flying animals and roads is circled around, dived down on and flown through. The site is thoroughly explored while the viewer is taken on an exuberant joy ride.

There is a viscerality about this variety of animation, a bodily manipulation of space that goes back to early Disney and Warner Brothers. However with this recent technology it is the new detail and consistency behind the complexity that amazes.

The five sets of work this Chinese artist presents make up a remarkable survey. Hopefully Aucklanders will cotton on early and get on up to K’ Rd to see it.

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