Cao Fei’s show La Town at Lombard Freid Gallery consists of a 40-minute video and five photographs of a dystopian fantasy world. Fei created this world with many plastic figurines and elaborate dioramas. The video is volatile, suspenseful, and entertaining, and it takes the viewer through a carefully constructed narrative. What stood out to me were the photographs, taken from the meticulously arranged sets used in the film. The scenes portrayed in the photographs are highly constructed yet surprisingly candid snapshots that portray a range of apocalyptic scenes. Looking at the series of photographs induces a feeling of voyeurism that plastic dolls don’t normally evoke, as if we are spying on their world that is scarily like our own, but the figures weren’t quite ready to share their crumbling world with us. From a dilapidated McDonald’s to a secret military meeting in an airplane hanger, the strange life in the images is both refreshing and oddly humorous.
The five photographs in La Town are so strong not only because they are beautifully bleak images, but also because they allow the viewer to project different stories onto each one. The blurred and blank faces of the small plastic citizens beg to be given characters with individual stories to tell. While the intense music from the video in the next room drifts over, the photographs can come to life in many different ways for each spectator. La Town is a delightful archaeological dig through someone’s old toy trunk, viewed through the lens of a bleak and not-so-distant future.