It's been a while since a genuine "art star" has had a show in Hong Kong, so the opening of Cao Fei's COSplayers at Para/site Gallery in Sheung Wan was quite an occasion. The young Guangzhou-based artist has been busy these days, flying from Germany to Japan to New York's Chinatown to keep up with her success, but was able to stage this unique solo exhibition in Hong Kong, and preside over the events for a weekend in late February.
Her best known work (perhaps the "It" piece of contemporary Chinese art at the moment) is "COSplayers", a set of videos and photographs documenting real-life teenage "Costume Players", acting out stylized fights and dramatic quests against the backdrop of the rapidly-expanding cities of Southern China. This work has been shown in various incarnations in many exhibitions, but for the Para/site show, Cao created a thematic environment from which to watch the videos and view the photographs-inflatable air mattresses covering the floor of the gallery, balloons stuck to its ceiling, hanging beads, and most importantly, a half-dozen life-sized mannequins dressed in incredibly unusual "cosplay" outfits. A Sailor Moon figure with bunny ears, a Darth Vader head atop a Bo Peep body (complete with Freddy Krueger hand), a Hello Kitty dressed in a Bruce Lee/Kill Bill-style yellow jumpsuit.
Then, in the back rooms, her other works like "Hip-Hop" (which features people on the street dancing to hip-hop music, and has now been filmed in Fukuoka and New York besides Guangzhou) and "PRD Anti-Heroes" (a visually-overwhelming play she directed for the GZ Triennial in 2005) screened on walls and televisions, surrounded by appropriate "Pearl-River-Delta"-detritus such as red-white-blue-fabric, old men's shoes, and cheap plastic chairs.
During the opening, visitors sat on the air-mattresses in the main room and watched the main COSplayers video projected against one wall, or else a supplementary video that was shot at an actual Cosplay convention in Japan, admired the mannequins, and listened to some hip-hop, both recorded and live. A group of MC's from Yuen Long (a rural area of Hong Kong's New Territories) who were Cao Fei's friends did about one-and-a-half sets of their hyper-fast Cantonese freestyle and beats... the second performance was done in the doorway, as the opening's crowd had spilled out into Po Yan Street, but of course a prim-looking police woman came quickly to break it up (she did allow them to play one more song, very considerate for a police officer!).
Cao Fei looked amused at it all, as she hung out with friends on the mattresses or out on the pavement, her LED-lit belt buckle scrolling "Cosplayers" all the while. After a few hours, the main crowd dispersed and about 10 of those remaining trekked to a local Chiu Chow restaurant for steamed fish and delicious maple-leaf chicken. As we sat around the large table, everyone tried to put together their special Cao Fei Cosplayers dolls that had been sold at the opening (tiny plastic anime figurines sealed in white-and-neon plastic drinks pouches). Cao Fei could be seen attempting to help those seated next to her, like Valerie Portefaix of Map Office, to fit the plastic pieces of their small warriors and princesses together, and I couldn't help but think that Chinese contemporary art was lucky to have such an interesting and complex "star" as Cao Fei in 2006.
Cao Fei's COSplayers
Date: 25th Feb - 7th April, 2006
Place: Para/Site Gallery
Address: 4 Po Yan St., Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Text and Photos: Samantha Culp