Artist's virtual city a drawcard for online property moguls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am

The next record sale listed in the soaring market for Chinese contemporary art may well come in a new field: virtual real estate. Leading the trend will be mainland artist Cao Fei, a sensation on the international art scene this year.

At Art Basel Miami Beach this month, she offered 17 virtual buildings, all 'under construction', as part of a large-scale online work called RMB City inside the online game Second Life. Her Guangzhou gallery, Vitamin Creative Space, was in Miami exhibiting plans and looking for 'investors', with buildings tagged at real world prices of US$80,000 to US$120,000.

London's The Art Newspaper reports from the fair that Vitamin Creative Space has sold one to a European private collector for US$100,000, but the gallery's director Zhang Wei says no deals have been struck - yet.

'Right now, we're just fund-raising for development,' says Zhang, standing inside the shipping container where Cao's display is part of an Art Basel Miami Beach special projects section called Art Positions. 'We've had a few collectors reserve the buildings, including private collectors and an institution, but we haven't accepted any money yet.'

He says sales will not be completely virtual and collectors who invest in a building will be able to curate and manage the building for two years. At the end of that time, they'll receive a permanent work by the artist. 'That might be a print, a multimedia work or something else,' Zhang says.

The prospect of big money for virtual art made Cao a sensation at Miami's art fair week, one of the world's largest commercial art gatherings with at least 21 separate fairs and 1,100 galleries.

The buzz also caps a huge year for Cao, 29, who lives and works in Beijing. Her 2007 exhibitions included the Taipei Biennial, a special project at Art Basel in June, and the centrepiece of China's pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which debuted a 'documentary' of an online love affair she also shot in Second Life.

A product of a master generation of electronic travellers - China's economically constrained, computer savvy youth - Cao has made a career of examining the alter egos and mirror realities people create for themselves. Some of her notable video works have quasi-comically posed hip hop and cosplay styles into everyday scenes of today's industrial China.

If the RMB City real estate deals are eventually closed, they will set records for Second Life, but they will not be the first real-world currency transactions inside its 'metaverse'.

The 3-D virtual world - its developers and players prefer not to call it a 'game' - was launched in 2003, and tens of thousands of players go through avatars to earn game currency, buy property, and even convert game currency to real US dollars. The exchange rate is about 260 virtual dollars to US$1, and estates are priced in the range of US$50 to US$200.

Architecturally, Cao's RMB City is a futuristic island on which China's best-known landmarks - the Forbidden City, Shanghai Tower, Hong Kong's Bank of China Building - are jammed together at close quarters with the 'People's Slum', a fire-belching factory and a giant panda.

The conglomeration is part nightmare, part fantasy, and atop the assemblage sits a giant spinning bicycle wheel. When completed, all Second Life users will be able to access the city for free, which may become a more grass-roots litmus test of the work's success.

Beyond all the virtual hype, RMB City is a humorous reflection of China's omnipresent construction projects, with the exhibit's slogan and/or tagline, 'A great real estate opportunity in Second Life' casting a double irony on the rush mentality of both online and bricks-and-mortar developments.

The exhibition booth's general atmosphere was that of a model home, a temporary office where developers display plans and pre-sell apartments in buildings under construction. Leaning against the walls were 3-D visualisations of the city - large digital printouts - which were selling for US$20,000 and up, but only to a few select customers.