On ViewSprüth Magers
April 29–August 19, 2023
The current Cao Fei exhibition in Berlin serves as a small survey for the artist and as an astute window into our contemporary moment. Viewers are greeted by questions about the metaverse in Meta-mentary (2022) through videoed street interviews with unidentified subjects. Some see it as a site of potential where life might be “more exciting,” and others see it as an inevitable “scam.” “What color is the sky in the metaverse?” the interviewer asks. The color of the algorithm, one suggests. Fei herself appears as well in this room, ensconced in in her own RMB City (2007–11) as her well-known avatar, China Tracy, also undergoing an interview about this sim world. Tracy reveals that its growth was influenced by the equally surreal scale of construction and social change in China during the early twenty-first century, as well as the revelations of disaster capitalism post-Katrina. We see that RMB City is not the world that she constructed as much as it’s a reflection of ours, and similarly slippage occurs in the identity of the avatar and artist.
Slippages such as these remind us, as if the daily news doesn’t already, that new constructions of our established realities are emerging around us at a breathtaking pace. No wonder, then, that we are met with a series of works in the show addressing the pandemic. In Isle of Instability (2020) Fei’s daughter plays the part of a marooned citizen in a pandemic world on an “island” created in the artist’s home. Potted plants and hand sanitizer are the prominent tropes, cut with images of empty urban landscapes. The work is strikingly comic and melancholic in its recall of the past few years. Fei traces, as well, the death of her stepfather from COVID and her mother’s resulting grief in Still Alive (2023). Many of these experiences are paired with physical alterations of the gallery’s space. Viewers might sit on an exercise ball or lawn chair, enter a tent, lay on a mattress, play badminton—in contrast to worlds we cannot touch and reach, whether the metaverse or death.
Fei’s pandemic pieces echo with her earlier sci-fi work, Nova (2019), screening upstairs at the gallery. A hauntingly beautiful techno-dystopic tale of a son lost and wandering in a forty-year time-lag in an experiment by his father gone sideways (a reasonable metaphor for an adult life between childhood and decline). Produced before “lagging” became an everyday experience in our pandemic Zooming lives and a few months before we all found ourselves stranded in some new time-space continuum, Fei’s film, and its central protagonist as a cosmonaut of the future who can get nowhere, are weighted by the history of such utopic aims and failures. Indeed in one of the series of works featuring Duotopia, a new world Fei constructed in the metaverse, snippets of the 1909 “Futurist Manifesto” move across the screen (DUOTOPIA - 1st Edition, 2022)—perhaps calling back to a bold embrace of technological potential, but also serving as a reminder of the failure of such dramatic adolescent longing that we still hear echoed by our current tech bros. Afterall, her new avatar in this realm is Oz, harkening back to the OG mediated otherworld and its false constructs.
For this viewer, however, the heart of the show was MatryoshkaVerse (2022) filmed during a research trip to the Mongolian border city Manzhouli in what is described as a “collective impromptu performance.” This improvisational work, in which she engages with and documents a relatively unknown node in late capitalism, reminds us that the world we discover is as destabilizing as any she can create. In this place, the viewer traces shifting identities, constructed propaganda, fluctuating national borders and diplomatic relations, through which capitalist trade relentlessly flows. The human attempt to mark this site is jarring—ranging from amusement parks with Vegas-style hotels full of faux-renaissance murals to monumentally scaled Russian stacking dolls, or Matryoshka, celebrating a ubiquitous folk art in which there is always another layer to unpack. Hotels are shaped in Muscovite kitsch in a seemingly unhinged example of late postmodernism. Tourists wander through as disoriented as we are. Where exactly should they aim their selfie sticks: At nature? At artifice? Out the window of a Thomas the Tank Engine tour bus? Here we find Mongolian folk dances, New Age empowerment gatherings inside large-scale yurts, and a Ukrainian accordionist singing a nationalist song to Mother Russia. If recent history does not satiate the visitor viewer, there is a herd of life-size mammoth statues ambling across the steppes not far out of town. The dual projection that Fei chooses for the work reflects the multi-faceted cultures, shifting perspectives, and ungrounded nature of place and identity in this twenty-first century global order. Certain characters from Nova (screening just around the corner) reappear here, exploring, and in doing so we might imagine them traversing our space as well, and we theirs. We, too, are moving through these disconnected interrelated worlds—limited only by the color of the algorithm.