An Interview With: Cao Fei

Looking at the work of Cao Fei, it’s easy to see it as summarising of the experiences of a whole generation of Chinese: a generation experiencing unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, whilst straddling the transition between the future, and the country’s ancient, rich history.

Through the media of video, photography and RMB City- a virtual city and creative platform she created within online world Second Life- Cao Fei comments upon the disillusionment of the young, whose dreams are at odds with reality. Her most recent video work, Haze and Fog, is a new kind of zombie movie set in modern China.

How important is it for people to be able to express themselves or fantasise in a virtual space?

Firstly, think of virtual sex.

Will RMB City make a return in your work in future projects?

It’s possible.

China Tracy is your Second Life avatar. What influenced the design you chose for her and what meaning does she hold to you?

China Tracy wears a futuristic, metal space suit with flying boots that shoot green fire. She holds a sceptre, and is seen as a smiling, yellow-skinned, black-haired Asian beauty. I believe that China Tracy is basically my true self, although my intention was to disguise myself. China Tracy doesn’t play the role of a certain person, nor a particular character in the virtual world. She neither hides behind my identity as an artist; nor displays/conceals too many of one’s desires or emotions, always remaining curious to everything and good to people.

How does RMB City compare to your real life base of Beijing?

Renmin (People’s republic) City is referent of contemporary China’s rapid economic growth and urbanization, which is a metaphor for China’s overall development. The city is a concentrated mirror image of China. It truly has the Beijing “haze”.

Cosplayers have also featured in your video work. What is the position of cosplayers within contemporary China? Is it individualism versus a collectivist society?

Cosplayers search for a role that can help them escape reality by fantasizing that they possess powerful magic and strength. In fact, they were left behind by the rapid development of society. In today’s China, collectivism becomes “nationalism” even if everywhere is filled with pure individualism; they are not free “individuals”.

Haze and Fog is a critique of the new middle classes in China and their lost traditional way of life. Is there any place for tradition in a post-internet world?

Tradition is being eradicated and being packaged into “new tradition”, becoming business opportunities, travel, economic holidays. Going back to the countryside, cultivation and manual labour is gradually becoming the new fashion.

Did traditional zombie movies influence Haze and Fog?

No. Only US films like Twilight, and drama such as The Walking Dead.

The inclusion of music in your work provides moments of intense drama. Do either film soundtracks or music videos influence the way you work with sound?

I’m strongly influenced by 80’s and 90’s MTV culture from the West.

Who or what has been the biggest inspiration to your artistic practice?


Social life on the move.

Thanks to Steven McCormick for the translation of this article. (@SteMcCormick)