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Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Opens RMB City Opera

RMB City Opera, an innovative video by contemporary Beijing artist Cao Fei, will be shown in the Project Space gallery at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from Feb. 4 to June 5.

Cao Fei, Chinese (b. 1978). RMB City Opera, 2009. Courtesy of RMB City. © 2010 RMB City Project developed by Cao Fei (SL: China Tracy) and Vitamin Creative Space.

The work explores the ideas of play, romance, identity, and our global, inter-connected world through the use of Second Life, a virtual online community inhabited by avatars – imaginary characters created by their real-life masters. In Second Life, avatars socialize, develop businesses, and pursue educational and creative opportunities often related to art, design and architecture. They hope to find idealistic solutions to global problems.

RMB City Opera premiered in Turin, Italy in 2009 as an experimental theatrical play. Its installation at the Nelson-Atkins marks its American debut.

RMB City Opera’s virtual cityscape includes emblematic sites such as Tiananmen Square, the Beijing Olympic Stadium, the China Central TV building, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and a giant wheel inspired by artist Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Bicycle Wheel sculpture. During the video, viewers seem to enter the city, soaring through and amongst its architectural wonders.

“Avatars in RMB City Opera can change their appearance, their sex, they can fly, they can do whatever they desire,” said Leesa Fanning, Associate Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art. “This project is an expansion of RMB City. [RMB City (2008-2010) is an online art community in the virtual world of Second Life.] It’s amazing that Cao Fei has done this. She’s only 33 years old.”

Born in 1978, the artist Cao Fei lives and works in Beijing. She is part of the young generation described as New New Human Beings, who embrace popular consumer culture and all things global, diverse, old, new, intellectual and non-intellectual. Using computers, cell phones and social media, this generation hopes to undermine China’s political system. Her work reflects the fluidity of a world in which cultures have mixed and diverged in rapid evolution. Cao Fei reveals the discrepancy between reality and dream, and the discontent and disillusionment of China’s younger generation.

“Cao Fei is addressing how technology has become such a part of this world that visitors are drawn in,” said Fanning. “She believes in the importance of both reality and virtual reality. They are two sides of the same coin.”

In RMB City Opera, a man, Nemeth, and a woman, Masala, interact as actors on a stage and as avatars in the virtual world. Inspired by propaganda operas from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, RMB City Opera includes characters in Red Army uniforms. Batman and Batwoman, Superman and Superwoman are also in the cast. Cao Fei prefers popular culture characters and music because they are widely known and will be understood by the broadest audience.

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