Cao Fei, artist: “I believe different kinds of feelings have to find their own media”
Beijing-based, Cao Fei (born 1978 in Guangzhou, China) is one of the most celebrated Chinese artists working today. Aspects of her practice are clearly influenced by and stem from the tremendous transformations that have taken place in China over the past three decades. Yet, it also resonates on a larger and international level, addressing topics of a globalized society and workforce. Her artistic language straddles between reality and fantasy. It translates elements from popular and gaming cultures, such as cinema, animation, cosplay, music (Cantopop and hip-hop) and social media, resulting in a humorous and engaging oeuvre that reflects on our ever-shifting contemporary condition.
Her recent selected exhibitions include 'Cao Fei', K21, Dusseldorf and the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (2018-2019) ; 'A Hollow in a World Too Full' at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (2018) ; 'One Hand Clapping' at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2018) ; 'Canton Express' at M+, Hong Kong (2017) ; 'Cao Fei' at MoMA PS1, New York and the 9thBerlin Biennale (2016) ; the 56th Venice Biennale and 'M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese Art from 1970 to now at The Whitworth Art Gallery', Manchester (2015) ; and 'Is Utopia for Sale?' at the Maxxi Museum, Rome (2014).
Cao Fei was a finalist of the prestigious Hugo Boss Art Prize (in association with the Guggenheim Foundation) in 2010, and she was named Best Artist at the 10th Chinese Contemporary Art Award in 2016. She also represented China at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Her works are featured in some of the world’s major permanent public collections, such as the Centre Pompidou, the Tate, the Guggenheim Museum, the MoMA, M+ Hong Kong and MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt/Main.
Her newest solo exhibition, Cao Fei : HX, opened at Centre Georges Pompidou on June 5th, 2019. It is the first ever solo show of a Chinese artist at Centre Pompidou. Doors had the opportunity to catch up with Cao Fei on this occasion.
“Cao Fei: HX” comprises an entirely new body of works. This includes a feature length film, NOVA, a collection of videos, photographs and archive materials as well as installations that are largely developed from found objects related to the artist’s research. The title 'HX' derives from the neighborhood of Cao Fei’s studio in Beijing. The studio is a disused community cinema near to the now well-known 798 art district, and is located in an area with a largely industrial recent past. Many of the buildings and facilities there were developed and erected in the 1950s with technical aid from the former Soviet Union. Most of them were specifically designed to produce electronics, which led to the invention of the first Chinese-made computer. In the time since, the neighborhood has changed significantly, with many factories ceasing to operate and areas of the community designated for regeneration. Nearly four years in the making, 'HX' is the outcome of the artist and her team’s painstaking research of the area, in the process unveiling the rich and complex layers of a fast disappearing neighborhood. Furthermore, in embracing and employing its histories as a starting point, she has also (re)narrated and (re)imagined the past, the present and the future of a changing community and its inhabitants in a rapidly modernized country.
Your solo exhibition, “Cao Fei: HX” includes a fully diverse body of material and works (film, photographs, installations...) and seems very personal: the name, HX is a reference to the neighborhood where your studio is located in Beijing, near the 798 Art District – a location with a recent industrial past. Centre Georges Pompidou describes the exhibition as “the international debut of (your) long term research project 'Hong Xia'”. Could you tell us a bit about this project and the way you have worked, together with your team, to make it come to life?
HX is a signifier, just like 798, 751 or 719 [the original numbers of the factory buildings that now form Beijing’s art district]. It refers to factories that disguised the nature of production to everyone. Outsiders would have no idea what was produced within. Over the course of four years, I had discussions and debates with scholars and experts in architecture, urban planning, film history, and technology. Thanks to their various perspectives on the history of China’s electronics industry, we could fully explore the project’s connections and contemporary relevance.
I live and work in a part of Beijing where China’s electronic industry came into being. After China’s reform and opening campaign, factories 798 and 751 were turned into an art district. Others became electronic cities, or even famous internet technology companies, such as 360, 58 Tongcheng and Ctrip. The HX project makes up for artistic omissions regarding the history of this industry, permitting us to re-imagine the past and consider the future of science and technology through an art film called Nova.
This exhibition is the first ever solo exhibition of a Chinese artist at Centre Pompidou. How do you feel about that? Having already exhibited your work in solo exhibitions all over the world (China, Japan, New Zealand, England, United States...), including Paris, in 2008 at Le Plateau and already at Centre Pompidou, in 2003, taking part in a group exhibition, does showing solo in Centre Pompidou leave any particular impression on you? Is there anything in particular you are hoping to gain from the French public?
The curator at Centre Pompidou told me “Now you’re an international artist”. For me, this means that when I took part in the first Chinese exhibition at Centre Pompidou in 2003, I was still seen as a “Chinese artist”. A reporter asked me: “How do you feel about the work you show Westerners being seen as Chinese art?” In a way, even if some people see me as international today, others might still see me as a Chinese artist with a Western perspective. I don't think I have constructed and exported a Western-imagined China, but I’m not opposed to such a cultural misunderstanding — I grew up at the height of China's developing globalization, and came into contact with cultures from various countries. This alerted me to contemporary China’s multi-faceted nature.
In your work, you have your hands on a large range of materials including video, installation, performance and digital media. In that way, you seem to be blurring the boundaries that are usually drawn between different types of art, and creating a connection and discussion between genres. Were you always interested in working with such diverse equipment?
I believe different kinds of feelings have to find their own media. I like to embody the richness of a topic and express it in a range of ways. I try to combine different possibilities under one conceptual umbrella, using various objects and their corresponding medias. As you never know what kind of chemical reactions these various objects will produce, it’s exciting. However, I care more about feelings than I do about means of expression. The media always comes second. Feelings come first. It is feelings that give birth to projects. Projects express feelings, whether they concern people, things, time, or history.
The common ground in most of your work is the interest in the changing, mobile urban and social landscape in today's China, and the way this influences the life of China's youth, along with the evolution of digital networks and virtual environments. How do you get inspired ? What do you think of the rise and the generalization of these virtual tools ?
I think China's youth are just one of the concerns in my varied creative career. Up until now, I still see that many still refer to me as a “young artist” rather than an artist. Of course, I enjoy being called young, but I don't like being reduced to this title, because I can't keep on representing all young people and their culture.
I am sensible, rational, without plan, and, at the same time, capable of making a plan. People can be relaxed and nervous at the same time. I have always said that my inspiration can come from anywhere, from all kind of possibilities, but I can probably summarize it in a few key words which are inseparable from it: phenomenological, changing, group, big picture, emotional…
Virtual tools, innovative media, are not to be messed with. These tools have the power to change how we express ourselves, not only on an artistic level, but also in the way we perceive and access information, and in the way we evaluate participation in the world.
Your work has been shown in China and all over the world. Are there any differences that struck you between the Chinese audience's reception and the Western audience's reception of your art?
Generally, Western audiences are highly educated. They are more willing to consider the intrinsic nature of art. Whichever industry they come from or work for, they can see that art pertains to thought and spirit. They are willing to understand the world and its different cultures through art. In China, there has been a long-term lack of attention and education in art, especially contemporary art. Therefore, when Chinese audiences hear the word “art”, they may not get it. In the same way, younger generations want to learn more, because they have obtained a certain perception of contemporary culture and art online, or returned from studying abroad. For the sake of art, I do hope this trend will continue.