Chinese artist Cao Fei. Image courtesy of BMW and the artist

Cao Fei and her journey to a parallel universe

The Chinese video artist talks to Tianyue Jiang, a Christie’s specialist in Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art, about fantasy and creativity, flitting between real and virtual worlds — and designing the 18th BMW Art Car

In her multimedia work, the Chinese artist Cao Fei (b. 1978) explores the experiences of her fellow citizens as they contend with physical and digital environments that are being transformed beyond all recognition. Cao was in her early twenties and still a student at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts when the well-known Chinese critic and curator Hou Hanru discovered her work. He showed her first piece of video art in one of his exhibitions, and would later select her interactive Second Life project for the Chinese Pavilion he curated for the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006. Video. 20’. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006. Video. 20’. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

Over the course of 2005 and 2006 Cao Fei created the celebrated Whose Utopia, which was commissioned as part of the Siemens Art Program. The 20-minute video is the product of the artist’s six-month residency at a light-bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta in southern China. After asking workers to complete a questionnaire about life in the factory, Cao invited 55 respondents to participate in workshops, the creation of installations and performances that explored their personal fantasies. The video, in three parts, poignantly contrasts the vivid imaginations of these predominantly migrant workers with the mundane nature of their day-to-day existence on the production line. 

After moving to Beijing in 2006, Cao Fei became intrigued by the virtual world. She launched RMB City, a virtual metropolis created in the online role-playing world of Second Life, in 2008. RMB City was designed as a platform for experimental creativity, offering real-world collectors the opportunity to purchase property, and her collaborators the chance to use different mediums to test the boundaries between virtual art and physical existence. To create her city, Cao took on the identity of an avatar, China Tracy.

Cao Fei, Haze and Fog, 2013. Video. 46’30’’. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

Cao Fei, Haze and Fog, 2013. Video. 46’30’’. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

Fei’s more recent works have included Haze and Fog (2013) and La Town (2014). In November last year it was announced that she will follow in the footsteps of art titans Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons by designing BMW’s next Art Car, #18. Her first American museum retrospective was held at MoMA PS1 from April to August 2016.  

You were discovered as in your early twenties. How do you keep a fresh perspective in your work?

Cao Fei: I find it's unnecessary to be focussed on finding fresh perspectives. In different stages of life, life provides us with endless change, whether it’s through our nature, our motivation, energy, emotions, or even affection. I’m fascinated by these intangible energies. I’m also curious about people and the world, and my artworks are born out of this curiosity. Aside from making art, I enjoy writing — it keeps me grounded and connected to my environment. It also sharpens my sensitivity to what’s going on around me. 

What have been the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the Asian art world, especially in terms of what and how people collect?  

CF: I feel strongly that a generation of young and entrepreneurial women collectors is forming in China. They focus on contemporary art, and are powerful thinkers who do everything they can to acquire the latest knowledge. Their education has given them an international outlook, and they seem particularly keen on following women artists. Regardless of gender, young collectors these days seem to be passionate about art and eager to learn. Instead of competing for social status by showing off their wealth and their art collections, these new collectors have cultivated a distinctive sense of taste and style, with a strong emphasis on art. 

Would you choose to live and work in Guangzhou or Beijing? Beijing or New York? 

CF: I like Guangzhou because it is where I grew up, and where my family and my favourite food are. Beijing is an interim in my transitory life. I also love New York because I get to meet so many interesting people. Sometimes I feel it is not about how I should choose where to live and work, but about accepting being somewhere at a certain time, usually determined by destiny and nature.

I try to gravitate back to daily life, to slow the racing pulse. Without doing this, the root of my creativity would be destroyed

What can you tell us about the experience and challenges of designing the 18th BMW Art Car? 

CF: The automobile is challenging as a medium. Its complex character derives from the fact that society associates it with transportation and luxury, as well as an extension of its owner’s personality. The automobile becomes attached to people as it services them on both emotional and functional levels. I am fascinated by the challenge and would like to think about this project in a more abstract way instead of focusing on its outlook. I think the theme of the century is that we are entering a ‘no man’s land’, our existences filled with driverless cars and aeroplanes, and virtual reality. What I want to figure out is how the medium is joined with time and society. 

For your next solo exhibition, which country or museum would you like to show in, and why? 

CF: It is exhausting, both physically and mentally, to prepare for a large-scale solo exhibition. I have to be fully committed and cannot focus on anything else for a whole year. At the moment, I hope to spend more time reading, doing research for future projects, writing, exercising, or just simply cleaning my house and taking care of my children and family. I think it is very important for me to return to a daily routine away from the spotlight of the art world. It is in ordinary day-to-day life that I find inspiration and motivation, as well as a balance between work and everything else. It’s why I try to gravitate back to daily life, to slow the racing pulse. Without doing this, the root of my creativity would be destroyed.

Cao Fei (SL avatar China Tracy), RMB City A Second Life City Planning, 2007-2011. Video. 5’57”. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

Cao Fei (SL avatar: China Tracy), RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, 2007-2011. Video. 5’57”. Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

You developed RMB City in the virtual world of Second Life. Can you tell us how the city will develop in the future?

CF: RMB City was a five-year project which began in 2007. The project dips into multiple areas, ranging from architectural design to city and event planning. Currently, RMB City is offline, although it is backed up on Second Life’s servers, meaning it’s ready to come alive again anytime in the future. There is no life or death in this realm — it is frozen temporarily. 

What are the biggest differences between the characters of China Tracy, your avatar in Second Life, and Cao Fei? 

CF: Virtual identities are desired by — and often designed by — our fantasies, and not based in reality. I used to channel myself through the avatar, and even created a kind of social network with other virtual characters around the world. However, I felt constantly displaced and conflicted between two identities. I realise that people have to deal with the flesh and the emotional needs and complexity that comes with that. As humans, we cannot escape from them, even if the problems we face may not be as easy to resolve as they are in the virtual world. 

Do you think too much attention is paid to the notion of ‘female artists’ rather than artists, per se? 

CF: I don’t feel that way, although I think it is true that there are still fewer women artists compared with their male counterparts in the majority of exhibitions. This is particularly true in China.  

Have you thought about curating, like a few of your contemporaries? If so, what direction is your first curated show likely to take?

CF: I’m going to curate a show soon on photography and video at OCAT Shenzhen. It will bring me back to my hometown, and to my original state of mind.    

You made your name with the video Whose Utopia, which questions who benefits from the huge economic advances made in China. What does Utopia look like to you?  

CF: Antithetical — Utopia and anti-Utopia.