Cao Fei’s ‘Blueprints’ at Serpentine Gallery decodes the human-machine narrative

For her first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, Chinese artist Cao Fei uses virtual reality in an immersive setting to contemplate interactions between humans and machines.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Feb 29, 2020

Fascinated by the human condition, both in the present as well as the future, Chinese artist Cao Fei explores the depths of digital media as a vehicle to tell stories that are otherwise latent pieces of unseen information. Serpentine Gallery will host Cao Fei in her first large-scale solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, Blueprints, showcasing a number of existing works as well as new, previously unseen artworks. Video, photography and virtual reality are just some of the tools she uses to bring to light what is otherwise shrouded by the clutter of everyday life.

After the death of the legendary leader Mao Zedong in 1976, China’s previously closed market opened up to foreign investors and private entrepreneurship. Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, Cao Fei grew up as an observer of the country she lived in as it changed rapidly. Her body of work today offers an inside perspective on the commonly heard narrative of consumerist China. She examines the way our perception of the 'self' has altered in the past two decades and how technology has blurred the lines between reality and virtuality.

Co-curator Joseph Constable says, “This prevalent theme is underpinned by several other key conversations that each of her works raise, one of which is our individual and collective experience of our built environment, and how architecture is charged through the layering of time – past, present and future – and the memories of those who inhabit certain spaces”.

Nova is the story of a computer scientist working on a secret international project | Blueprints | Cao Fei | STIRworld
Nova is the story of a computer scientist working on a secret international project Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Intrigued by relationships formed between cities and people, Cao Fei has spent five years studying the social history and urban transformation of the Jiuxianqiao (Hong Xia) district of Beijing. The exhibition is curated into three parts, of which the first is a virtual reality installation titled The Eternal Wave, a direct result of her research. The site-specific installation, created in collaboration with Acute Art, ties together the artist’s new film Nova and a collection of archival material and objects.

Constable elaborates, “Encompassing works made during the last 12 years, this selection will give visitors an introduction to Cao Fei’s far-reaching artistic practice. The earliest work in the exhibition, Whose Utopia (2006), is paired with her recent film, Asia One (2018), in an installation that considers the significance of automation on the human body and its labouring self, whilst the 2014 work, La Town, presents a post-apocalyptic cityscape pictured through a cinematic stop-motion animation. Together, these works further the layering of virtual, physical and cinematic spaces that are encountered in the first part of the exhibition, leading visitors through alternative realities and multiple frames of experience.”

  • A work-in-progress image from ‘The Eternal Wave’ (2019) | Blueprints | Cao Fei | STIRworld
    A work-in-progress image from The Eternal Wave (2019) Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art
  • Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream 02 (From Whose Utopia Series) 2006 | Blueprints | Cao Fei | STIRworld
    Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream 02 (From Whose Utopia Series) 2006 Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Cao Fei’s work is a blend of social commentary, documentary with surrealist treatment and popular aesthetics that are derived from her environment but applicable to wider themes of automation, technology and virtuality. Her works are a layered examination of people, human interaction with machines, and our obsession with production and consumption. She asks questions relevant to our current climate by juxtaposing information from history with notions of the future. Cao Fei has exhibited at a number of biennales, triennales, galleries and museums such as the Venice Biennale (2003, 2007, 2015), Shanghai Biennale (2004), Moscow Biennale (2005), Guggenheim Museum (2011, 2018), MoMA (2015, 2016), Centre Pompidou (2003, 2015, 2019) and many more.  

Blueprints, curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Joseph Constable, will open at Serpentine Gallery on March 4 and run till May 17, 2020.

Nova by Cao Fei is a sci-fi film with a retro-futurist aesthetic | Blueprints | Cao Fei | STIRworld
Nova by Cao Fei is a sci-fi film with a retro-futurist aesthetic Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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