Variations on a Theme: Fantasy Islands

The Arts


Though it never existed, the legend of Atlantis continues to stand as an exemplar of a powerful and enlightened society. Plato is credited for introducing Western civilization to the mythical island which, "in a single day and night of misfortune ... sank and disappeared in the depths of the sea." While Atlantis was accepted in ancient times as an allegory for a powerful and ideal society, only recent students of history (or treasure hunters) believe the story of Atlantis to be true. 


Nevertheless, Plato's description of Atlantis has inspired many artists to tackle the notion of an idealized, enlightened community living remotely from the heathen, pedestrian masses.


Published in 1516, Sir Thomas More's Utopia is a political, philosophical tract of the idealized society thinly disguised as a fiction. The place, Utopia, from where we get the name for a perfect community, is described by the (fictional) worldly philosopher Raphael Hythloday as a place of communal property and peace without crime, class distinction, or materialism (among other admirable properties). Uniquely, Utopia began as a geographical isthmus; its people decided to sever ties with others by digging up the thin strip of land. The newly formed island would be free of the influences of the lesser-enlightened.


Fast forward five hundred years to the world's most populous country where Internet gaming provides an outlet for millions of young people whose means of escape are often limited. China may be moving faster into a new century than any other country has before. The consequences of moving too quickly, though, can be devastating. In creating the video installation "RMB City," the digital media artist Cao Fei expresses her concern over her country's race into the future.


As I wrote in 2011, “RMB City” is a frenetic, chaotic, but wholly safe (to authorities, anyway) creation of an ideal. To fully experience the work, one must don a set of headphones that pulse with a low, thrumming ambient soundtrack which, if you close your eyes, sounds like an underwater rave happening in some distant mermaid neighborhood. But “RMB City” is more visual than aural feast. The video begins with a blank canvas, or more precisely, a blank island in a vast ocean, over which a spaceship deposits the building blocks of an imagined, circus-like city. “RMB City”—Cao’s imaginative, future city—is populated by, among other things, smokestacks, a bicycle wheel, a floating panda bear, pylons and pillars galore, construction cranes, sports stadiums, and the random people who wander amongst and build such a place. There are many traditional elements (e.g., panda bear, Forbidden City) and contemporary manifestations (e.g., CCTV’s new headquarters, the Bird’s Nest stadium) stacked on top of one another in seemingly random, precarious stacks. Think Rube Goldberg meets China meets Pinocchio’s adventure in The Land of Toys (Paese dei Balocchi).


"The chaos is not without meaning, however, and it is all the more interesting because it is Cao’s imaginative city. The title of her urban landscape, RMB City, reflects China’s genuflections toward economic growth, finance, and consumerism, that much is obvious. The thrill comes in picking out the more subtle nods at China today and China tomorrow. For example, at one point in the video a squat, gray structure is built, destroyed, rebuilt, re-destroyed, again and again. One can take this to be a symbol of the constant building and rebuilding of modern China, where the old is constantly destroyed to make way for the new (history, be gone!). I could not help but think, however, that this scene recalled the crumbling of similar looking structures during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 68,000 people. Over 7,000 of these same gray, multistory buildings also collapsed, killing scores of children while they were bent over school books."


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My jaw dropped when I saw an online advertisement for "Derek Jeter's Ford Challenge," a marketing gimmick aimed at making money for a Yankees baseball star and an automobile giant. The imagery looks uncannily like Cao Fei's "RMB City," though less chaotic. Both obviously feature urban islands surrounded by blue skies and waters, iconic architecture (CCTV tower; Empire State Building), national emblems (panda bear; Statue of Liberty), and giant wheels (bicycle, Ferris).


Jeter's Ford Challenge


The similarities between "RMB City" and "Ford Challenge," however, are minimal. Aesthetically, the similar color palettes, shapes, and artistic forms jump out, but I hardly believe that the marketing gurus at Ford are aware of the likeness to Cao's work. Deep down, though, both fantasy islands sell a dream, one that is best achieved not through hard work, but through material consumption.


Through December 15, 2012 at Postmasters Gallery in New York City, the married duo Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's show "Twenty One Twelve" features ten miniature sculptures. The dioramas combine mixed material and digital media to depict corporate campuses, resorts, and man made and natural landscapes. The curators claim this "framework exists to support utopian goals, even as it rests upon resource depletion, financial instabilities, and entropic decay."


Between the Resorts by Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, various, 11 x 16 x 20 (2012) (photo: Postmasters)


Like More's Utopia, "Between the Resorts" (above) depicts and idealized escape (play land) with limited ties to the pedestrian lifestyle of the masses. At the top of the island, the humdrum, everyday existence of the Nine-to-Five, cacophonous, urban landscape looms in the background. The weight of the city feels crushing. Thus, the slides whisk participants away from a decaying city, through the bounty of Mother Nature, and then off the map. All troubles can be left behind with a faithful leap.


Battle Pirates is a Facebook game that takes place in a dystopian, watery future. The idea is to create an island, bolster its infrastructure, and defend it with an epic naval force. Of course, if you stretch yourself too thin and concentrate too much on the military buildup and adventuring, you could find yourself in the same position as the once, also ethereal island of Atlantis: After a a single day and night of pirating misfortune, your island could also disappear into the depths of the sea.



Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol



Cao Fei, Consumerism, Urbanism, Utopia, Variations on a Theme