MODERN TIMES
Wallpaper|November 2021
Combining history, fiction and the abstract, Chinese artist Cao Fei’s dystopian artworks tackle themes such as the automation of labour, hyper-capitalism and, presciently, the effect of a global pandemic. Having just completed her first major solo show in Beijing, the prolific winner of the 2021 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize is going global, with her retro-futuristic take on contemporary life now the subject of exhibitions from Los Angeles to Rome, and a 20-page portfolio for Wallpaper
DAVEN WU

‘Cao Fei is running late,’ says the interpreter for my interview. ‘She can’t get Zoom to work on her new computer.’ The interpreter – he’s calling in from Melbourne, and I, from Singapore – tries to set up FaceTime, but that doesn’t work either. And just as we’ve managed to log on to Google Meet, Cao comes online on Zoom from Beijing. She’s using her old laptop. ‘I’m so sorry.’

The irony of the moment looms large. Since she burst into an unsuspecting art world in 1999 with Imbalance 257 – a grainy, voyeuristic video of disaffected Chinese youth she’d shot for her third-year project at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts – Cao has become renowned for her adept fusion of technology and visual art to create surrealistic, dystopian worlds where an entire online city floats over water (RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, 2007), a man is lost in hyperspace (Nova, 2019), and a robot vacuum cleaner wanders aimlessly through rubble (Rumba II: Nomad, 2015).

‘Cao’s practice has always hovered between the real and virtual worlds,’ says Stephanie Fong, the founder of Fost Gallery in Singapore, who has been following Cao’s work since Cosplayers, 2004. ‘She was making multimedia works even before the current generation of art consumers was born.’

And now, in the midst of arguably the most prolific period of her professional life, Cao finds herself sufficiently let down by technology that she declines to even turn on her Zoom video. But then, with such a punishing schedule, who can blame her? She has just come off her first major solo show in China at UCCA Beijing, a milestone she believes has brought her the widespread recognition that has eluded her over the past 20 years. The show charted her artistic development in the context of China’s profound social changes, and the aesthetic and cultural transformations they caused. In August, her film Nova had its Russian premiere at the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival. A month later, she won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize for ‘Blueprints’, her 2020 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries. She currently has a show at Sprüth Magers’ Los Angeles gallery and is prepping for ‘Supernova’, another solo at Rome’s MAXXI.

All this, while creating our November limited-edition cover. It is the latest riff on Hong Xia, her research project on the history and the current state of Jiuxianqiao, the Beijing neighborhood she works in, and which was the birthplace of China’s electronics industry.

The Wallpaper* portfolio (page 118) is a retrospective of sorts of two of Cao’s seminal works. Nova – which debuted at her Pompidou show ‘HX’ in 2019 – is a retro-futurist tale of a failed secret science project that attempts to turn humans into digital mediums. Lost in cyberspace, the protagonist drifts through overlapping worlds and time. The other work, Asia One, 2018, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, is a meditation on the effects of automated labour and the repetitive motion of factories on the human spirit. ‘It’s been six years since I started Hong Xia, but it’s a continuous project,’ Cao says, explaining that there is much material still to be mined in documenting the evolution of a specific urban pocket as buildings are torn down and rebuilt, and communities reshaped. ‘It’s a combination of history, fiction, and the abstract. The Wallpaper* cover has a lot to do with the post-Covid world. Will we live like this forever, or will there be an end in a year, two years? And, of course, these questions are all linked to issues currently affecting the world, such as climate change.’

For any artist, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but for two decades now, Cao has been both prolific and thoughtful in her exploration of such grand themes. For Yung Ma, who curated ‘HX’ at the Centre Pompidou in 2019 and is now the artistic director of Seoul Mediacity Biennale, Cao ‘has the unique ability to connect the past with the present in a playful yet profound manner. In doing so, she has created visions of the future that are deeply rooted in our dreams, hope, fear, and anxiety.’

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