Her iconic video and photography piece COSPlayers (2004), set in Guangzhou, will be on view at PS1 as part of the exhibition. To create the work, Cao invited various Cosplay communities from China—members of a youth subculture that dress up as Japanese anime characters—to her city, where she stages them in their fantastical costumes against the grey tones of the industrial metropolis. “All of Cao Fei’s protagonists are engaged in role-playing games of one kind or another,” Miller says, “trying on different identities, and using these guises to escape or more fully enter their own personal versions of the real.”
The dystopian landscape of Guangzhou has also had a profound influence on Cao Fei, and provided the inspiration for another of her major works, La Town (2014). In the film noir-esque work, Cao uses the constructed environment of a mythical town and its architecture to comment on the life of its inhabitants and their interactions with each other. With the structures of their society literally dismantled, her miniature protagonists are destabilized and liberated at the same time. Exotic animals, floods, a dilapidated McDonald’s, wrecked cars, and rubble populate their tiny world. This time, “real” people are replaced by a pristine, beautifully rendered fiction that draws on cinematic tropes and the social network Second Life. In a further layer, the artist purchased figurines online and distressed them by hand—adding a quality of decay to something new to make the fiction believable.