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Cao Fei wins the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021
Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018 © Cao Fei. Courtesy of artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers.



LONDON.- Cao Fei has won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021 for her solo exhibition Blueprints (2020).

Cao Fei (b. 1978, Guangzhou), was announced as the 2021 winner of the prestigious £30,000 prize at a special ceremony at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, by the British broadcaster, journalist and filmmaker, Bidisha, on Thursday 9 September 2021.

The 2021 award, which also marks the 25th anniversary of this long-standing and prestigious annual prize, recognises artists and projects deemed to have made the most innovative and significant contribution to photography over the previous 12 months.

Cao Fei was awarded the prize for her first large-scale UK solo exhibition, Blueprints (2020), at the Serpentine Gallery, London (4 March – 17 May 2020 and 4 August – 13 September 2020). This immersive, site-specific presentation brought together new and existing works, including Whose Utopia? (2006), Asia One (2018) and La Town (2014) exploring the impact of technology, virtual realities, urbanisation and the alienating effects of mechanised labour on individuals and communities. Shown in an environment that blurred the boundaries of virtual, physical and cinematic spaces, Blueprints offered visitors multiple frames of experience through precisely crafted, visually lush narratives and propositions informed by a rich resource of references.

Cao Fei is one of the most innovative and exciting young Chinese artists to have emerged on the international scene. Working across film, photography, digital media, sculpture and installation, Cao Fei’s longstanding interest in virtual possibilities is underpinned by her own experience of, and extensive research into, China’s historical, political and social structures.

From early in her practice, Cao Fei harnessed the digital world as both a utopian and dystopian space, with little distinction between virtual and analogue experience. While her work reflects social-cultural dynamics in China, and plays with nostalgic yearning for a previous age, her focus is on the potential of what might be, of virtual possibilities. She addresses these far-reaching topics through deadpan humour and the creation of surreal encounters and fantastical scenarios. Although each of Cao Fei‘s worlds appear to teeter on the edge of apocalyptic uncertainty, her characters navigate these complex and chaotic realities with vigour and agency, harnessing the unique possibilities of technology in order to shape a collective future.




The presentation at The Photographers’ Gallery features her most recent film work, Nova (2019), alongside a selection of large-scale photographs and a publication, within a space that operates as part cinema, part stage-set, part traditional Gallery.

The 2021 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize jury comprised: Cristina de Middel, artist; Simon Njami, independent curator, writer, lecturer and art critic; Anna Tellgren, curator of photography at Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt; and Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery as the non-voting chair.

Brett Rogers OBE, Director, The Photographers’ Gallery and Chair of Jury said: “Huge congratulations to Cao Fei whose prescient, multi-layered work speaks so pertinently about the moment we are living in – especially post pandemic. Although she speaks from a position rooted in Chinese history, she addresses universally resonant themes in her immaculately crafted narratives: The importance and fragility of human connection, the power of love, the ethics of technology, and existential malaise. To a large degree, all her work explores technology as a source of alienation but also as the thing that binds us – it’s neither a totally bleak nor overly optimistic vision, but it is ultimately humane.

On behalf of the jury, I also want to acknowledge and pay tribute to fellow 2021 shortlisted artists, Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena and Zineb Sedira. Separately and collectively they showed the myriad ways images can connect, reflect, inform, protest, educate and re-imagine the world around us and evoked a rich and illuminating discussion about the role of photography today.”

Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, said: “It is with great pleasure that we announce Cao Fei as this year’s winner. Drawing upon extensive research and a wealth of cultural and visual references, her work offers a uniquely poetic dystopia that echoes the human condition today. She captures the particular isolation and alienation experienced in our increasingly digital age through a distinctive and seductive visual language that speaks both through and about images and their place in the world today.

I also want to extend my congratulations and heartfelt thanks to the other nominees, Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena and Zineb Sedira all of whose projects reflect the power and generosity of the photographic medium to encompass a multitude of perspectives and intentions.”

The work of all the 2021 shortlisted artists, Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena, Cao Fei and Zineb Sedira, remains on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, curated by Anna Dannemann, until 26 September 2021. The exhibition is also part of the international photography triennial RAY Fotografieprojekte Frankfurt/RheinMain and is on display at Deutsche Börse’s headquarters in Eschborn/Frankfurt until 19 September 2021.










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