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Cao Fei’s Blueprints: Illustrating the Dangers of Progress - Serpentine Gallery

4th Mar 2020 to 17th May 2020

Free Entry


Combining film, digital media, photography, sculpture, installation and performance, Cao Fei’s Blueprints is her first major institutional solo exhibition in the UK. It vividly depicts human responses to the unparalleled technological developments produced by globalisation, illustrating a broader struggle to retain perspective and individuality at a time when the ideology of progress and materialism holds sway. Crucially, Fei achieves this through imagining and constructing new universes, that traverse the boundaries of time and space, for her characters to exist in.

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006, Video, 20’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Image: Serpentine Website

As a Guangzhou-native, Fei is well acquainted with the effects of such rapid development. The opening gallery at the Serpentine is transformed into the entrance of the Hongxia Theatre in Beijing, a building which currently serves as the artist’s own studio, despite the area’s approaching demolition. This supposed notion of progress is the source of love’s demise in Cao Fei’s 2019 centrepiece feature-length film Nova. Inspired by Sino-Soviet progress and technological cooperation during the 1950s Cold War period, Fei depicts a blossoming romance between a Russian and Chinese computer scientist and the connection the latter has with his son. When romance is obliterated by the political demands of the Soviet Union, those left behind seek to accelerate progress through a blinkered adherence to ideology. In this absence of human connection, the father uses his son as a test case in an international project that attempts to turn humans into digital mediums. The result is catastrophic; his son is lost in cyberspace, held in purgatory between reality and fantasy, the past and the future.

Associated with Nova is Fei’s first virtual reality work – The Eternal Wave. This relies on the space of the Hongxia Theatre’s kitchen as its backdrop before the visitor is taken on a multi-sensory journey through the boundaries of time and space, exploring the early electronic industry in China and the areas surrounding Hongxia Theatre. The material comforts of the working TV and fan in the kitchen are eventually exposed as a façade, suspended within the disarming sprawl of the digital world, symbolised by hurtling meteorites behind the flapping curtains of the kitchen’s window.

Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, Video, 63’20”. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Image: Serpentine Website

If the façade of material progress within The Eternal Wave is reinforced by outer space, Fei’s depiction of imagination and aspiration within her earlier 2006 work Whose Utopia is buffered by the nature of China’s suffocating factory culture and the monotony of mechanised labour. Amidst a flurry of production, workers live out their dreams, be that the practice of Tai Chi, ballet or heavy rock music. Perhaps more political in nature here, Fei peels back layers of industrial conformity to reveal the perseverance of individuality and the paradoxical limitations of technological progress.

Paired with this is Asia One, a 2018 work which considers the dramatic impact of automation upon labour practices. Working in a warehouse the size of a city, the repetitive motion of the factory is supervised by two mute workers and an AI robot. Punctuating - or rather interrupting - cold and monotonous scenes of automation are surreal displays of dysfunctionality and the workers’ imaginations, which serve as an aberration and a call to reclaim individuality and human connection. In particular, the warehouse system is dumbfounded by a 1970s style dance troupe which engages in choreography in the style of old propaganda films celebrating technological progress.

Cao Fei, Nova 01, 2019, Inkjet print, 150x105cm. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Image: Serpentine Website

Such dysfunctionality also pervades Cao Fei’s dramatic, post-apocalyptic 2014 work La Town. Using a series of detailed dioramas, Fei creates an abandoned mythical city which is presented to the viewer in a state of moral and environmental disarray. Using stop motion animation and a dramatic dialogue between two narrators - inspired by Alain Resnais’ 1959 cross-cultural romance film Hiroshima Mon Amour - which likens the end of relationships to the impacts of two atomic bombs, Fei illustrates how the past can haunt the present and therefore encourage detachment. The minutiae of the dioramas are therefore amplified, creating an intense viewing experience which explores universal ideas of love, progress and their subsequent disintegration.

Despite escalating Coronavirus concerns, Cao Fei defied the odds and made an appearance at the opening of her futuristic installation at the Serpentine Gallery earlier this month. This is a testament to the wildly ambitious nature of Blueprints. These projects may have been inspired by her experiences in Beijing’s ‘Hongxia’ District, yet they have a truly global resonance. Tying together old and new work, Fei is able to simultaneously critique the prior century of progress which couches her depiction of rapid technological development and encourage the persistence of individual feeling, thought and aspiration in a globalising world.

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