A similar cartoon character device is used in one of the short videos, where the jaunty smile of Thomas the Tank Engine is grafted onto the front of a dusty truck hauling grimy trash and construction debris across town to the city dump; fun childhood adventures have been exchanged for ugly, mind numbing work. A second video uses silhouetted hand puppets to play out clever shadow stories with dark undertones and ominous political undercurrents.
In all of these works, things are not what they seem, and innocent cartoon symbols have been taken out of context, creating an entirely different "play" experience. Depending on your level of jadedness and sarcasm, it's alternately sharply satirical and and sadly dispiriting to see these bouncing happy characters endure the harsh realities life has to dish out. In Cao Fei's works, the soft, warm glow of these fantasy worlds has been drained away, leaving behind something more complicated and much less easily interpreted.
If you don't have an 11 year old boy in your house (like we do), you likely won't have any idea what a Tech Deck is (it's a small hand held replica skateboard that can be manipulated with your fingers). But if you can identify this trendy toy, I can absolutely guarantee that Cao Fei's laminated wood miniature skatepark is the single most kid friendly artwork that you will see in a gallery this year. It combines various architectural features with ramps and rails, coming together in a dense tabletop extravaganza that will make your child's eyes light up; don't enjoy it too much, or you'll be off the lumberyard cursing yourself as you try and recreate it.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Cao Fei: Play Time
Through June 25th
518 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10001