The Kansas City Star, Mar 05

[ 2011-03-08 03:15:01 | 作者Author: caofei ]
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Leesa Fanning, the associate curator of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, US

‘RMB City Opera’ reflects a changing China
By ALICE THORSON (The Kansas City Star) Posted on Sat, Mar. 05, 2011 10:15 PM

Want to know what’s on the minds of young people in an ascendant, tech-savvy China, the generation struggling with the vestiges of the Cultural Revolution and the Communist government’s stranglehold on the country’s high-octane present?

Spend 45 minutes watching Chinese artist Cao Fei’s video “RMB City Opera” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and you’ll walk away with some answers.

As world views go, the vision it conveys is pretty sobering — some would say chilling.

Leesa Fanning, the museum’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, saw the video at the Art Basel fair in Switzerland last summer.

“I sat through it three times,” she said recently, “and thought, ‘I have to get this for Kansas City.’ ”

With its lively visuals filled with references to video games, pop culture and China’s building boom, the piece, on view in the Bloch Building Project Space, is highly entertaining.

On a recent Thursday, it held the attention of several teens — until the beginning of a steamy, four-minute sex scene a half-hour into the piece, when they were whisked away by an adult.

“RMB City Opera” tells a love story of sorts, but the romance is hollow, with self gratification overriding all feelings of empathy or affection.

It takes place in two realms: the real world, in which protagonists Nemeth and Masala are played by actors, and in the virtual world of RMB City, a utopian city Cao Fei created in the virtual community of Second Life. The video seams the two together, capturing the actors in a live performance in Turin, Italy, in 2009, playing their parts in front of a huge projection of virtual scenes.

Nemeth and Masala interact in RMB City by means of avatars — in real life they never really meet but communicate through their computers. The actors represent them busily tapping away — Masala on a bed, Nemeth at his desk — on the floor in front of the RMB City projection.

Sometimes they dance together, but the contact is a projection of their imaginations.

Although their relationship provides the work’s narrative backbone, what “RMB City Opera” really explores is the individual’s state of mind in fast-paced contemporary urban China, where pop culture and consumerism have filled the values void left by the Cultural Revolution, the overpowering clampdown on creativity and individualism of the 1960s and ’70s.

“You can read ‘RMB City Opera’ on the surface and follow the stories of these two beautiful avatars changing outfits and exploring a magical, colorful world, but you can also read it as a much deeper reflection on human behavior,” Cao Fei explained in an interview with Fanning set in RMB City, where the two conversed through avatars.

Visitors can call up the interview from the museum’s website, either at home or on computers posted outside the show.

The video opens with the appearance of actors playing Nemeth and Masala. Dressed in “Matrix”-style black with dark sunglasses, they perform jerky, avatar-like movements to a percussive soundtrack pierced with bursts of birdsong.

Then RMB City is born. Materializing with a speed and density meant to evoke the Chinese building boom, many of the virtual structures suggest contemporary Chinese landmarks, including the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai. Cao Fei has included many amenities for the people, including a People’s Waterpark, People’s Palace and a People’s Love Center in the shape of a panda.

These structures and others are identified on a laminated card available at the entrance of the show.

In contrast to the American love affair with the pastoral, it is telling that Cao Fei’s vision of utopia is an urban one and that Nemeth and Masala have the place to themselves. Together they explore RMB City and experiment with different avatars, including Superman and Superwoman, Transformers, sexualized cartoon animals and big, blond, idealized Western types.

Batman and Batwoman also make appearances.

Themes of escape and longing mingle as the actors and their avatars perform a romantic dance to the song “Feeling Good.”

The avatars continue dancing, but the actors retreat into headphone-wearing solitude as the soundtrack switches to a vocal rendition of “The Look of Love.”

A computer crash brings everything to a halt, and the mood turns political as the avatars complain about their masters and the power they have. In the next sequence, Cao Fei draws from old propaganda operas, dressing the actors and their avatars in Red Army uniforms.

Fanning and the museum’s design crew brought some innovative touches to the presentation of “RMB City Opera.” In addition to the avatar interview and on-site computers, the seating — a dozen or so contemporary chairs lent by the high-end design store Museo — adds a sculptural element, if not a cozy ambience, to the viewing area.

The accompanying brochure breaks the work into 10 segments, with brief explanations of the dominant images and ideas in each.

After the Red Army scene, the avatars return to RMB City. “They realize,” Fanning writes, “that they can think, act and talk independent of the real-life masters who created them.”

She describes the subsequent sex scene as “a passionless interaction” and notes that for Cao’s Fei’s generation, sexual activity is a way to demonstrate independence from the country’s repressive political system.

Sex and nudity are commonplace in young Chinese art, as evidenced in Robert Adanto’s 2008 documentary, “Rising Tide.”

The film, screened March 5 in Atkins Auditorium, offers an eye-opening look at the attitudes of Cao Fei and her peers.

Themes sounded over and over include how overwhelmed they feel in the face of their country’s rapid changes, their uncertainty about whether what is happening is good or bad, and their lack of a moral compass to help sort it all out.

Born in the 1970s and early ’80s, the new generation of Chinese artists has no memories of the Cultural Revolution that shaped the lives of many of their parents. Yet they are still coping with the after-effects of its overthrow of traditional culture and values and with the consumerist onslaught that has rushed in.

“Money is the religion of the Chinese nowadays,” observes one artist in the film, and it’s no accident that Cao Fei named her virtual city, RMB, after the renminbi, China’s currency.

In the video’s final 10 minutes, the avatars continue their adventures in RMB City, while Nemeth and Masala agree not to share their real-world identities.

Their decision mirrors the need for escape that Cao Fei discerns in young people throughout China, who are “not able to cope with globalization, not able to be in control of the effects and changes, so that they could only give up or escape.”

But “RMB City Opera” is more than an escapist fantasy enacted in the virtual world.

The vapid avatars in their sterile surroundings and the self-absorbed Nemeth and Masala plugged into their headphones and computers convey a philosophical outlook that looks beyond the specifics of present-day China.

“I think human beings are meant to be incomplete somehow, and this is what always urges us to strive for something more — something more beautiful, something more poetic,” Cao Fei said in her avatar interview with Fanning.

“I think the truth is that we will never grasp it, neither in the ‘real’ nor in the second world.”

On exhibit

•The show: “RMB City Opera”

•Where: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St.

•When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The exhibit continues through June 5.

•How much: Tickets cost $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for students with ID. Free to members and children under 12. For tickets, call 816-751-1278 or visit

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send e-mail to

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[最后修改由 caofei, 于 2011-03-08 03:22:58]