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Cao Fei, “Cosplayers Series: A Mirage” (2004), C-print, 75 x 100cm (all images courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space)

In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, Marco Polo regales Kublai Khan with tales of his travels, musing about the strange poetry of each city and their intersections with memory and selfhood. These cities, in actuality, are not quite real, and whether we are to suspend our disbelief is not clear. As Marco Polo would have it, it’s the space between fantasy and reality from which one gleans the most insight. Regarding the city of Penthesilea, he asks, “Outside of Penthesilea, does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?”

The artist Cao Fei has cited Invisible Cities as a reference point for her short film, “La Town,” which surveys a mysterious city in the throes of post-apocalyptic destitution. La Town is an amalgamation of many places, with its German grocery store, bombed-out McDonalds, and supernatural creatures: a giant octopus appears to have made its way through a window; Santa’s reindeer lay prone on a set of train tracks. The city is built of tiny plastic toys and models, scuffed and bloodied until they lose the inherent charm of being miniature. Two invisible narrators argue back and forth — in French — about the reality of experience, recalling the dialogue between the protagonists of the Alain Resnais 1959 film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, whose memories may or may not be founded in truth. “The illusion, quite simply, is so, so perfect,” says a woman’s voice in Cao’s film. “You saw nothing in La Town,” a man’s voice replies. “Nothing.”

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Cao Fei, “Cosplayers Series: A Ming at Home” (2004), C-print, 75 x 100cm

In viewing Cao’s first stateside museum retrospective at MOMA PS1, I found myself continually returning to “La Town.” Its decisive fiction feels allusive of the aftershocks of rapid globalization or, maybe, the singularity. Cao is 37, and the show acts as a chronological timeline of her career, leading visitors from the experimental work of her time at the Guangzhou Art Academy to her recent video, “Rumba II: Nomad,” in which Roomba vacuum cleaners, unleashed at the site of demolished buildings, explore and absorb the urban sprawl like alien creatures. During the course of her practice, she’s moved from Guangzhou to Beijing, become a mother, and seen the transformations of the People’s Republic, from the industrial city of her birth to the country’s capital. The changing sociopolitical climate of China is often Cao’s focus, and she tends to explore it through somber introspection and surrealist fantasy, plumbing the depths of each city’s collective imagination.

In “Hip Hop: Guangzhou,” an earlier work, Cao has random citizens of Guangzhou — children, construction workers — perform breakdance routines, however awkward (it’s worth noting that Cao is a hip-hop fan, and the show’s opening was accompanied by a performance featuring Asian-American rap trio, Notorious MSG). The results are lighthearted but earnest, and not a far cry from the performative spirit of “Whose Utopia?,” a film Cao made during her time as an artist-in-residence for the Siemens Art Program. In that work, she sent a questionnaire to the employees at an OSRAM lightbulb factory in the Pearl River Delta, asking them to reflect on their status and hopes for the future, and then traveled to the space to speak with them directly. The film starts by showing the workers isolated within the solitary motions of their assigned tasks, and by the second half, several of them enact their aspirations, becoming ballerinas and musicians, dancing and playing in the workspace. At PS1, “Whose Utopia?” is set next to a bunk bed designed like the employees’ own, decorated with hairbrushes, magazines, and the accoutrement of adolescent daydreamers; we imagine the workers laying to rest, dreaming of their hopes and their art. The film ends with a man singing, “My future is not a dream.” Despite the workers’ lack of benefits or power, we do not walk away feeling especially bad for them — perhaps because Cao doesn’t, either. Instead, she empowers them with autonomy. There are few better ways to confront the consequences of a rapidly transforming economy than brief, meaningful escapism.

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Cao Fei (SL avatar: China Tracy), “RMB City: A Second Life City Planning” (2007), digital print, 120 x 160 cm

“COSplayers,” a short film documenting a day in the life of young adults dressed in the costumes of their favorite virtual characters, is another example of this act of reimagining. As inWhose Utopia?,” Cao provides her protagonists with a stage to enact their fantasies: the images of the cosplayers ready for battle (weapons in sweaty hands, mouths in stiff lines) are surreal. Consider the backdrop of Guangzhou, where decrepit buildings crumble next to new skyscrapers — there is much implied, again, about the shifting tides of China’s economy — and where the cosplayers will have to grow up. We do not recognize the alienation of their preferred realities, or the probable lack of channels through which they might express themselves, until the film’s end. Then, the open spaces of their imagined battlegrounds give way to the noisy clutter of the city. They are citizens again, masks removed, parents glumly waiting in the living room. They go home. They eat dinner.

Cao moved to Beijing in 2006 and the following year began building RMB City — a fully functioning virtual city in Second Life (RMB’s name comes from renminbi, China’s official currency). China Tracy, Cao’s pigtailed avatar with whom she spent months exploring Second Life, is the public’s official ambassador to RMB City. At PS1, guests are invited to explore the city on a computer, while China Tracy’s Second Life film, “i.Mirror,” loops on the wall behind them. “i.Mirror” chronicles China Tracy’s love affair with another avatar, Hug Yue — a blonde Adonis in Second Life, an aging Californian “IRL” — in a whimsical, almost-true story. “Everybody is an actor in a parallel world,” China Tracy says to her lover.

RMB City is a hodgepodge, triangulating the reality of post-Maoist China with a hyper-fantastical future and the space that exists in between: like Calvino’s Penthesilea, RMB City is the liminal but viable realm between real and not real. One may traverse RMB City by flying across its ocean and tumbling through the air, past statues of Mao, Shanghai’s Pearl TV Tower, and a rotating wheel in the sky. Here, the country’s challenges collide with the potential for a limitless future, a model for a new kind of urban planning. RMB City is, indeed, a real online art community, with a functioning website and even an offline component: the RMB City Opera, a 2009 play that included both Second Life and real-life characters.

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Cao Fei, “Haze and Fog” (2013), C-print, 70 x 105 cm

The scenarios depicted throughout Cao’s practice, whether real or imagined, vacillate between spaces of hope and post-apocalyptic melodramas in which the catalyst for disaster is unclear. Hence “Haze and Fog,” Cao’s take on a zombie film, that is entrancing in its vague, apprehensive sense of unease. This time, the fantasy is a portrait of the collective loneliness that occurs when cultural tradition, or a steady sense of self, cannot keep up with a changing metropolis and a suffering landscape. The zombies in this film are urbanites and displaced immigrants, simultaneously deeply affected and totally numb. They wander about in a daze, and when they kill, it’s mostly emotionless. A woman slicing vegetables stares into the middle distance until she slices her fingers off; she barely stirs. A man plays guitar in a dry wooded glen, stating that he’s “sending [his] song into the forest.” People eat slowly, gazing out of windows or at nothing. They are less undead than dead inside.

Even in “Haze and Fog,” imaginative play is less a mode of criticism than it is a consequential result of mercurial change. The fantasy might be a coping mechanism, an escapist vantage point from which to examine the environment — not unlike watching the tides turn at the expense of so many populations elsewhere in the world. The environment is bleak, but hope never completely dissolves. “I’ve always wept over La Town’s fate,” says the female voiceover in La Town, “a new desert so like other deserts.” In the face of modernity and a rapidly transforming economy — in China and elsewhere — imagination, it seems, is the best lens through which to view it all.

Cao Fei continues at MoMA PS1 (22–25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through August 30. 

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL. She has contributed work to BOMB, Los Angeles Review of Books' Avidly channel, Hazlitt, VICE, and The Miami Rail.