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Chinese Reality #10: i.Mirror by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei) Second Life Documentary Film

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

i.Mirror by China Tracy (dir. Cao Fei)

i.Mirror by China Tracy (dir. Cao Fei)

i.Mirror by China Tracy (aka: Cao Fei) Second Life Documentary Film 

2007. China. Directed by Cao Fei.

Artist and documentarian Cao Fei recorded her “experiences” within the online social platform Second Life. The result is a wistful, surreal vision of an alternative reality sprung from the pop culture fantasies and hyper-consumerism of contemporary urban China, while also trying to transcend its real-life limitations. It can be seen as an answer to the challenge posed by River Elegy: how to envision a new Chinese destiny founded on principles of individuality, creativity, discovery, and freedom. The film also reflects the contemporary condition of the virtual supplanting our experience of the real.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

The video is described by the artist as a “virtual documentary,” where we follow the adventures of China Tracy dating a young Chinese hipster, traveling to the beach, or visiting a museum in a disclocated environment. China Tracy’s virtual experiences often express melancholy, as seen in the message that scrolls down the screen: “To go virtual is the only way to forget the real darkness.”

New Museum, Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education. Taylor & Francis. June 23 2011.

Gradually it is revealed that China’s handsome young swain is actually a 60-something American, though in Second Life–where, as China notes, one can be young forever–this doesn’t seem to be a big problem… Second Life video’s landscape have a dystopic air, and despite the avatars’ ability to enact fantasies of unlimited movement while inhabiting impossibly glamorous personas, their world is tinged with melancholy, as when China Tracy’s paramour abandons his hipster avatar for an old-man persona that is presumably closer to his first life identity.

 – Eleanor Heartney, “Like Life.” Art in America, May 2008

People ask me whether that love story was real or fake. Of course there were aspects of both involved because when you film in SL you have to interact with other people but you also try to preserve a sense of impartiality. It became very hard to disentangle emotions and objectivity.

Cao Fei, interviewed by Andrew Maerkle in The Japan Times, October 30, 2009

Another interview with Cao Fei gives more details of the male “lead” of i.Mirror, who in real life is a political activist and former political prisoner in the United States. 

“When we travel through Second Life, or when we watch i.Mirror, we inevitably project our first life into it. In fact, we bring many of the dilemmas and quandaries that we face in real life to the fore in Second Life, hoping to resolve them. Or we hope and attempt to use Second Life to decode and interpret real life.”

Cao Fei, Art21

“SL is a lab, a world lab, but it consists in a huge global economic systems.  It bring us business and democracy, at the same time with feelings and culture. We can’t avoid capitalism’s wave; at the same time, we can’t avoid Communist aspirations in our heart. This world is not only dualistic, we’re inconsistent. Communism is our Utopia, Second Life is our E-topia… SL is our mirror, it tells us the truth.”

Cao Fei interviewed by Wagner James Au, New World Notes

Cao Fei, in her beautiful, meditative, and sometimes sardonic, explorations of Second Life, reveals that in the hyperreality of Second Life there is an attempt to restore the real—connections with people that escape them in Real Life, for some reason or another. Second Life is a “scaled-down refraction” that facilitates the coming together of people from all over the world in one common, publicly accessible space. For Baudrillard, “But we are still in the same boat: none of our societies know how to manage their mourning for the real, for power, for the social itself, which is implicated in this same breakdown. And it is by an artificial revitalization of all this that we try to escape it” (Baudrillard). Cao, in her documentary, exposes the artificial attempt of Second Life to mourn the loss of the real. Yet, she offers us some hope, “To go virtual is the only way to forget about the real darkness.” Through her documentary i.Mirror, Cao wants the viewer to see in her experience of Second Life a resemblance of the real that still holds meaning.

A veteran of two Venice Biennales, one Carnegie International and countless international fairs and expositions, Ms. Cao is one of mainland China’s hottest art exports, known for videos and conceptual projects that uncover curious subcultures, all while shining a light on contemporary Chinese life. With the 2004 video“Cosplayers,” she honed in on China’s early “cosplay” scene, following kids costumed like Japanese anime characters as they staged fantastical battles, then returned to humdrum home lives. For “Whose Utopia” (2006-7) she persuaded workers in a Guangdong Province light-bulb factory to enact their fantasies and filmed them as rock musicians, break dancers and ballerinas on the factory floor.

Carol Kino, The New York Times, June 2 2011

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