Explore Cao Fei’s physical and virtual worlds as Blueprints re-opens at Serpentine Gallery
Robert Perry | Ed Francesca Gransden | 19 February 2020
Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, Video, 63’20”. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers
Is there a contemporary artist more entwined with their national story?
Born in 1978, Cao Fei grew up in parallel with China’s technological and consumerist opening-up, and leads her generation’s artistic response.
Working across photography, video and digital media, Fei considers the complexities of modernity and themes such as mechanisation and cyber identity that have been pushed into the global consciousness by her country’s rapid growth.
This spring new and existing works by Fei will be showcased in Blueprints at London’s Serpentine Galleries, an organisation she first collaborated with in 2006.
The gallery’s Associate Curator Joseph Constable said: “We have been in dialogue for many years and thought she hasn’t had a major solo exhibition in the UK, which is quite surprising, and now is the moment to do it.”
Fei was born in Guangzhou, the manufacturing heart of the hi-tech Pearl River Delta region. After graduating from the city’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2001, her early work centred on the area.
In COSplayers (2004), Fei filmed youngsters dressed as game characters roaming across an empty city landscape and explored how those who have grown up ensconced in a virtual world struggle to adapt to the real one.
In 2006 Fei produced her first major work, Whose Utopia? After surveying factory labourers from the Pearl River region to understand their hopes and reasons for migration, she then arranged interactive workshops. The resulting 20-minute film first shows the monotony of production line work before employees dress up as their dream self, be it rock stars or ballerinas. Whose Utopia? humanises the migrants amidst the drudgery of automation and challenges the positive narrative of economic migration by revealing that the real dreams of the workers remain unfulfilled.
Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, Video, 109’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers
Fei launched her most renowned creation, RMB City, on the online virtual platform Second Life in 2008. As her avatar, China Tracey, she constructed a sprawling metropolis fusing elements of modern and traditional China with highways intersecting Buddhist temples and Chairman Mao statues. Fei mirrored the uneasy balance between tradition and modernity created by her country’s cultural and urban explosion. The space became a community where artists collaborated and hosted events for the millions of Second Life users and spawned several other artworks, including a physical opera in 2011.
© Courtesy of the artist and Art Basel
Fei has gained global recognition and exhibited at biennials in Shanghai, Moscow, Sydney, Istanbul and Venice. Her meteoric rise has seen London’s Tate Modern, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Palais de Tokyo all screen her productions. In 2016, she received the highest honour from the Chinese Contemporary Art Award. The following year Fei became the youngest and only Chinese artist to design a BMW Art Car, joining a list of illustrious former contributors including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Using augmented reality technology, she created the series’ first digital vehicle.
In 2019, her project, HX, was the first-ever solo exhibition held by a Chinese artist at Centre Pompidou, Paris. The show focused on the history of the post-industrial neighbourhood surrounding her Beijing studio, once a former community cinema, and included the acclaimed feature-length film Nova.
Cao Fei, The Eternal Wave, 2020, virtual reality. Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art.
As a new decade dawns, Fei continues to grapple with new technology and Blueprints features her first-ever virtual reality artwork, The Eternal Wave. Starting in her kitchen, viewers skip through digital and real worlds and become participants in Fei’s universe.
Joseph said: “It’s a very ambitious work; not only just being her first VR piece but to actually bring together the physical and the virtual in this way is something she has never done before.”
Before the lockdown, the visitors to Serpentine Galleries enjoyed a fully immersive space that transcended a conventional museum set-up. Reflecting her most recent work and studio environment, the entrance has been transformed into a theatre-style set containing objects transported from China.
The artist’s profile has grown considerably since she last exhibited at the gallery, and Joseph thinks one of the reasons for Fei’s popularity is her fluidity across mediums.
He said: “She can be simultaneously making a feature film, or a sculptural installation or she can be working with BMW. She has a very interesting relationship to the artistic sphere and the commercial sphere and moves through them quite freely, which is interesting for an artist.”
About the Artist
Cao Fei is a multimedia artist whose work includes video, performance, and digital media. Fei examines the daily life of Chinese citizens born after the Cultural Revolution. Some of her work is owned and displayed by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Her work explores China’s widespread internet culture as well as the borders between dreams and reality. Fei captures the rapid social and cultural transformation of contemporary China, highlighting the impact of foreign influences from the USA and Japan.