Cosplayers are basically young people who dress like video game characters to take on their characteristics and style. While dressed in this way, they go around the city or meet at dedicated fairs. In the video of the Chinese artist Cao Fei we see these figures moving in urban spaces, passing through parks, streets, river, construction sites and skyscrapers: these places leave a sense of desolation but the surreal presence of the avatars manages to create a crack between the everyday reality and the imagery of videogames. This work from 2004 demonstrates a great anticipatory, almost prophetic thought, of which the artist gives a representation focusing on the evolution of digital personalities: We are in China during a great economic and urban growth, but above all these are the years in which the very fast digitization process begins. The characters that animate Cao Fei’s video prove the end of the separation between the digital world and the real world, between avatar and individual. The cosplayer is not only a hero with whom to identify and move within the digital environments of video games, but it is the character which helps facing the daily reality off the screen, by assuming, through the costume, its superpowers and in doing so finding a way to adapt to rapid changes in urbanization and digitalization. Cosplayers brilliantly proposes a precursor thought of what the developments of augmented reality and its effects in the daily life of people and users will be.

The video, which demonstrates a very solid cinematic shooting ability, presents the avatars as if they were inserted within a dream in which the enchantment of the attitudes and moves of these fantastic characters is discounted by the boredom and cyclicality of everyday life. The Chinese artist recreates the suspended atmospheres that characterize some shots by directors, such as Fellini or Greenaway, to which the artist refers.  These atmospheres are the disruptive tool with which to represent the nascent break between real and digital. Without intervening with post-production techniques on video and shooting, Cao Fei focuses on the performative acts and on the narratological sequence of the movements of the characters in the different settings. In Cosplayers there is no need for digital interventions because the physical presence of the characters is provocative enough to subvert the traditional logic of the society of those years.

Cosplayers questions individuality and proposes a contemporary reflection on the diversification between one’s self and digital self that often allows a greater degree of freedom and expression than the restrictive environment imposed by society. But the return to reality is obligatory: a bored warrior princess sits next to her father who reads the newspaper, another blue-haired figure looks wistfully at her mother while ironing, a gold knight has dinner with his soup on a wooden table while his family members animate the background. The state of safety and comfort lasts as long as a match, now even these real avatars must return to routine, to the deprivation of their identity: Cao Fei with this anthropological and psychological reflection of civilization, focuses in particular on young people who find themselves in the balance between the will to rebel and the inability to do so within the roles standardized by the society in which they live. Cosplayers is an escape and a return, a perpetuation of a sense of inadequacy but perhaps also the beginning of a possible revolt: the evasion of digital reality within the dynamics of the real world.

Cao Fei
Cosplayers, 2004
single-channel video, color, sound, 9’12 ”
Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Spruth Magers


Part of the group exhibition “Role Play” curated by Melissa Harris at Osservatorio Fondazione Prada in which 11 international artists reflect on the processes of research, projection and creation of possible alternative identities.

Osservatorio Fondazione Prada, Milan
until June 27, 2022


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