Artist Cao Fei at the Centre Pompidou
One of the most acclaimed artists of her generation, Cao Fei is the first Chinese artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where she debuts her first feature-length film and a multimedia project four years in the making
With the international debut of her exhibition HX at the Centre Pompidou running until 26 August — just a few months before the inauguration of the museum’s Shanghai outpost in November — Cao Fei takes the abandoned cinema that houses her studio as her point of departure to retrace the mutations of Hongxia, the fast-disappearing and rapidly transforming industrial neighbourhood in Beijing where the cinema is located.
The ambitious, four-year-long research project brings together different perspectives, from architecture, urban planning, history and technology, through which the Guangzhou-born artist scrutinises the effects of unbridled globalisation, a theme that runs throughout her practice. The show is presented in two parts: the first is dedicated to memory, through documents, photos, light boxes, reclaimed furniture, documentaries and portraits of the residents who worked in the factories. The second is a recreation of said movie theatre, where Nova (named after a fictional town), her new feature-length film, is screened. The project was not without its challenges, as the artist explains: ‘With long projects, you need to have patience. Sometimes it’s torture. It lasts too long, but you have to keep going. For this project, it was always difficult to look for different people who would help me approach it from different angles.’
Nova tells the story of a computer scientist working on a secret international project, for which he experiments on his own son. All goes horribly wrong and his son is transformed into a digital ghost who exists only in cyberspace, trapped between the past and the future, a lost soul seeking human connection. As the movie progresses, the viewer loses all notion of chronological time. Straddling the past and the future to question the present, the sci-fi film with a retro-futurist aesthetic takes the history of Hongxia in the 50s and 60s and reimagines it as a future narrative. ‘One side is the past and one side is very futuristic,’ Cao notes. ‘It’s really a mix, and the film has no sense of time, because the actors are always travelling between the past, present and future, so audiences don’t know which time I’m talking about and what is the real history, as I’ll never offer the truth. My research helped me understand the real history of Hongxia. Using the truth is a very important part of the process for me. It’s not just about making a fiction film.’
As with Cao’s previous works, reality and fantasy cohabit. At the end of 2016, her Beijing studio was destroyed, and when searching for a new space in the city, she chanced upon a dream location: a disused community cinema near the 798 Art District, in an area filled with factories built in the 1950s (with aid from the former Soviet Union) that once produced the electronics that led to the invention of the first Chinese-made computer. With the space standing empty and slated for demolition, Cao seized the opportunity. She set up her studio there and soon began to immerse herself in the history of Hongxia. Gradually, HX took shape as she looked to the past in order to illuminate the present and imagine the future. Like her previous projects, HX stemmed from personal experience. ‘Sometimes I’ll start from a personal angle, my immediate experiences, but in the end, those experiences are quite universal at the same time,’ she says.
Embracing popular and gaming cultures like cinema, animation, cosplay, music and social media, to reflect on the human condition, Cao has always been attentive to the problematics of urban development and the subsequent alienation of the individual.
‘I don’t think that art can change the world. I think politics can change the world, but art can provide a different perspective and open audiences’ minds to understand that the world can either be like this or like that,’ she concludes.
Having participated in three editions of the Venice Art Biennale, she has established herself as one of the art world’s highest profile artists. Other notable exhibitions include the Maxxi Museum in Rome in 2014, MoMA PS1 in New York and Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2016 and M+ in Hong Kong in 2017, and the Guggenheim last year. In 2016, Cao was named the Best Artist at the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards in Beijing, and with her meteoric rise in the Western world, she’s paving the way for the next generation of China’s artistic vanguard.
Text / Nina Starr
Images / Courtesy of Centre Pompidou