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Flying Avatars Admire the Artwork

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

At the Art Positions fair in Miami in December, the Chinese experimental artist Cao Fei sold a work to a private collector for $100,000.

It wasn't a painting or a sculpture or one of the short videos that Ms. Cao, 30, is known for. Rather, all that money bought a piece of virtual real estate in the online world Second Life.

Second Life has been an alternative reality for Internet users since 2003, allowing them to travel about and live virtual lives as avatars, owning land, building homes and buying and selling goods. It has been so popular — its creator, Linden Lab, says that more than 20 million user accounts have been registered — that companies are using it to hold virtual employment interviews, training sessions and sales meetings.

Museums and galleries have also moved in. More than 1,000 art galleries operate in Second Life, and in December the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., opened a replica of itself in the virtual world. Others are to follow, including the Newseum, an interactive museum of news in Washington. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York has also co-presented a Second Life show and has plans for future virtual events.

In Second Life, visitors don't just look at the art and read the labels. They can have fun with the exhibitions. It is more immersive, more social and often interactive, with avatars walking or flying about the space, talking with one another and sometimes moving about the artworks. The Tech Museum of Innovation even allows visitors to curate their own exhibitions in its Second Life gallery. They can also ride a giant slide guitar.

Ms. Cao is part of a wave of artists working in this new medium. She came upon the site early last year and was excited by its imaginative and transformative potential. "I was curious at first about this world," she said in an interview from her home in Beijing. "But I learned to navigate the space and then started to have fun teleporting about, before being attracted by a variety of residents, new types of community, entertainment facilities and business models. I then tried to live a life completely different from my real one."

The outcome of all this virtual exploration was "i.Mirror," a moody, impressionistic film centered on her Second Life avatar, China Tracy, a woman with glistening white-and-red body armor who travels the world observing people and places and eventually befriends a handsome young avatar (in real life, a retiree in his 60s living in California) with whom she falls in love.

"It is a sort of documentary," Ms. Cao said. "I captured video of the experience as it happened online, then edited it down to create a feature story. Nothing was scripted."

Ms. Cao began her career making short films and videos that combined aspects of fantasy and real-life documentary. Her anarchic "Rabid Dogs," a 2002 video, showed Burberry-clad office workers crawling on the floor and growling like dogs. Her 2004 video "Cosplayers" is even more surreal, following the escapades of Chinese teenagers dressed to resemble Japanese anime characters, wandering the streets of Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub in southern China that is her hometown.

Since then, she has become a fixture on the international art scene, showing her videos and photographs in more than 100 group exhibitions. Last summer, she presented "i.Mirror" at the Venice Biennale. The film is also screening as part of the Internet component of the New Museum of Contemporary Art's inaugural show, "Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century," organized by its media arts affiliate, Rhizome.

"She's been an art star in China for nearly 10 years," said Christopher Phillips, a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. "As she's gained international experience, she's grown in confidence and ambition, zooming from project to project without missing a beat."

For her latest work, which made its debut in Miami in December, Ms. Cao has remained a resident of Second Life, where she is building a virtual city as an ironic look at the pace of construction and change in China. It is called RMB City, the title an abbreviation of renminbi, China's currency, also known as the yuan. It will be a condensed compilation of the characteristics of Chinese cities, combining new fantasy realms with virtual versions of famous Chinese buildings and landmarks, like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.

It is also, much like China, going to be a rough hybrid of communism, socialism and capitalism. To cover Web-design costs for the online building project, which is expected to take two years, the artist is selling off virtual real estate, with prices as high as $120,000 for a structure. Investors gain two years' "access" to the space, like a lease arrangement. After this period they will receive a commemorative artwork from Ms. Cao and documentation of all activities in their virtual property.

For RMB City's New York gallery debut, Ms. Cao has transformed Lombard-Freid Projects in Chelsea into a real estate office. Photographs of bits of prime virtual real estate surround the gallery walls. Nearby is a minimalist model of the city and copies of a prospectus for would-be investors, while a marketing video about RMB City and the development project plays in the corner. The artist also plans to open a real-life office in Beijing to help sell her virtual real estate.

By Benjamin Genocchio
For The New York Times

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