Collected Works: Art



by Cao Fei
Photography, video art

View a photograph from this series

A Star Wars stormtrooper, shovel in hand, helps to break up a pile of rubble. A Hello Kitty hybrid with spiked, yellow limbs poses in front of a rickshaw. Spider-Man slings a sack of trash over his shoulder. Caped crusaders stand atop skyscrapers, surveying the view. Warriors face off, crouched in a battle-ready stance. This is the world of cosplay, in which performers become fictional characters, the city their playground.

The photographs and films that comprise Cao Fei’s COSPlayers series were captured in urban Guangzhou, with anonymous construction sites and littered streets acting as dull, grey backdrops. In some footage, the mundane activities undertaken are humorously at odds with the colourful personas on show. Elsewhere, fantasy is evidently embraced, as characters wield weapons, lounge among models of exotic animals, and feign death.

When the cosplayers relax in their family homes, their roles are visibly muted, offset by their parents’ drab clothing and tame domestic comforts. One image shows a young woman, dressed in full murderess garb, slumped sulkily as her slipper-footed father reads the newspaper. The suggestion is that the age gap between them is insurmountable, the interests and ideologies of China’s youth culture increasingly alien to older generations.

But the cosplayers’ actions are not a rejection of reality. Cao probes the relationship between Chinese cities and their residents, tracking the shifts that occur as exposure to various virtual worlds increases. Far from being lost to fantasy, the urban spaces that her subjects inhabit are being reinvented and explored anew. COSPlayers invites its viewers to take the hands of these heroes and villains, and enter this compelling realm with them.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Visit Cao Fei's website here. View her work on the Lombard Freid website. Izabella Scott has interviewed Cao for The White Review, as have Alex Greenberger for Art News, Charles Schultz for The Brooklyn Rail, and Susan Acret for Asia Art Archive.

Articles about COSPlayers include a post about cosplay by An Xiao for Hyperallergic, an essay on the gamification of everyday life by Charlotte Miller for SFAQ, and a profile of Cao Fei by Barbara Pollack for The New York Times.

Question of the day

Which works of visual art from 2004 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Tabernas Desert Run by Simon Starling. An eccentric journey involving an electric bike, a desert, and a painted cactus. (→)

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Twitter →)

Noah's Egg, a sculpture by Rachel Joynt – a giant bronze egg that hides a celestial secret. (→)

– John Wadsworth, Silent Frame's Editor-in-Chief (via Facebook →)

Read more: Asian visual art