Cao Fei: ‘In between dreams and reality’

The groundbreaking Chinese multimedia artist on finding inspiration in city life, alternate realities and the unifying power of art

Cao Fei’s work speaks to the persistence of the human spirit within the contemporary metropolis. Through video, photography, installation and digital media, the artist explores what it means to be an individual in an ever-changing world – where reality is shaped by a digital realm, offering surreal encounters and parallel lives.

Cao Fei is inspired by urban China: she lives and works in Beijing where – as she explains in this film – she finds inspiration from those around her. ‘On the one hand,’ she says, ‘I proactively research and explore topics that interest me; on the other, I am guided by chance.’

Dreams and alternate realities are recurrent themes, alongside the rapid transformation of Chinese society. Cao sees the two as intertwined: ‘As society advances at such a fast pace, it too brings people to very extreme states of mind [...]Chasing dreams, and whether dreams become reality, therefore, have become subjects of many creative works.’

Her breakthrough piece, ‘Whose Utopia’ – part of the UBS Art Collection – crystallises many of these ideas. Featuring real workers in a Chinese lightbulb factory, the film appears at first to be a documentary, before dream-like sequences start to invade the sterility of the factory floor. Here the workers act out fantasy lives, performing ballet or Tai Chi, flanked by the machines that define their true daily existence.

In another key work, the 2013 film ‘Haze and Fog’, Chinese youths become zombies – their lives focused on menial work. The title, she explains, ‘relates not only to air pollution but more importantly to the pollution of the human mind and spirit.’ The work reflects a wider interest in sustainability.

While Cao’s metropolises may seem to stifle their inhabitants, there is also a redemptive quality in her work, a recognition of human creativity and imagination. Ultimately, she feels, it is art that connects us: ‘Through different perspectives, some works of art can unite people with society, or even the world at large.’

UBS is a Lead Partner for West Bund Art & Design Fair, where a new work by Cao Fei is on display from 11 to 15 November 2020.

November 2020