UCCA opens Cao Fei's largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date

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UCCA opens Cao Fei's largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date
Installation view. Courtesy UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.

BEIJING.- UCCA presents Cao Fei: Staging the Era, the artist’s first major solo show in China and largest and most comprehensive retrospective to date. As one of China’s most prominent contemporary artists, Cao Fei (b. 1978, Guangzhou, lives and works in Beijing) uses multimedia formats—film, video, virtual reality, and installation—to surreally depict the dramatic social changes of a globalizing China and the state of the individual under such conditions, fluidly shifting between documenting reality and creating fantasy in her art. Staging the Era assembles an expansive range of works from Cao Fei’s two decade-long career, featuring celebrated works such as San Yuan Li (2004), Cosplayers (2004), Whose Utopia (2006), RMB City (2007-2012), and La Town (2014), and the debut of her latest large-scale interdisciplinary project HX (2015-2021). This exhibition was curated by Philip Tinari, Guo Xi, Patrick Rhine, and Huang Jiehua, and was organized by Liu Kaiyun, Edward Guan, Shi Yao, and Anna Yang.

Structured into four sections that echo the flow of themes and locales in her work—The South, The City, The Workshop, and The Simulation—the exhibition situates Cao Fei's practice within the context of her own artistic development and the country’s profound social upheavals in the past three decades. Cao Fei’s early performances and experimental video works reflect her bold creative attitude, the new aesthetic and cultural sensibilities effected by economic development in Guangzhou, and the influence of Hong Kong’s mass culture. Later, Guangzhou and the urban fabric of modernizing China became the essential, mosaic setting of Cao Fei’s exploration of the role of the individual amidst rapid urbanization. With a flâneur’s perspective, the experimental documentary San Yuan Li (2003) captures the contradictions and poetics in a historical district that became emblematic of the urban-village phenomenon. Cao Fei’s interest in the quotidian, youth culture, technological advancement, and the paradoxes of contemporary life also finds its energetic expressions in the video works of the “Hip Hop” series (2003-2006), Cosplayers (2004), and Milkman (2005).

Maneuvering within the protean hybridity of documentary and fictional forms, Cao Fei turns her focus towards the site and conditions of production behind modern infrastructures and social systems. Factory workers take center stage in Cao Fei’s playful and poignant interrogation of the impact of economic transitions on individual lives in Whose Utopia (2006). She dives into the heart of the online shopping industrial complex in a pair of films in the “Asia One” project: Asia One (2018), a futuristic love story between human workers among robots, and 11.11 (2018), a documentary that peels back the overwhelming operations at online retailer JD.com’s gargantuan logistics chain.

Departing from the real world, Cao Fei adopts the avatar China Tracy in the online virtual world Second Life to engineer the extensive “RMB City” series (2007-2012), which would come to be considered as a pioneering work of Internet art. In her most recent long-term undertaking, HX project centers around the science fiction film Nova (2019) and the documentary Hongxia (2019), along with AR and VR artworks and installations of archival materials. The layers of documentary, history, and science fiction present a multidimensional synthesis of individual and collective encounters across space-time, a vision of memory and media as loci of future-nostalgia convergence.

Cao Fei: Staging the Era is at once a retrospective and an immersive experience that invites us into Cao Fei’s creative mind, as realized in the exhibition design by Hong Kong studio Beau Architects and accompanied by the publication of the catalogue HX (2021). Perhaps here lies Cao Fei’s special contribution to the global history of art: a sense, at once personal and epochal, sentimental and monumental, meditative and performative, of belonging to this particular here and now—a stage for our era.

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