On the occasion of LOOP 2020 I was invited to choose a series of moving image artworks from the Julia Stoschek Collection, which features an incredible selection of artists – a testament to how deeply Julia has built this video collection over the years. I am also excited to be working again with Cao Fei, with whom I have maintained a long-term dialogue and carried out many collaborations. The idea of curating a solo presentation was prompted by the fact that the Julia Stoschek’s video collection goes into depth with many artists and their work. I have chosen to select three works from by Cao Fei – RMB City, iMirror by China Tracy and Hip Hop Guangzhou – and then to invite Cao Fei to select three more works from Chinese artists of a younger generation, all created during lockdown.
I first met Cao Fei in the early 2000s with Hou Hanru, before she made the critical and spectacular eight-minute video Cosplayers. At the time, she was studying at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and was part of a vibrant generation of Chinese artists emerging during East Asia’s rapid urban development in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Since this first meeting, Cao Fei’s work has proved prescient and urgent, and the Serpentine has included her in numerous projects, firstly as part of ‘China Power Station: Part 1’, an offsite Serpentine Galleries’ exhibition at Battersea Power Station in 2006, where the artist presented her film, Whose Utopia, and then in 2008, with the installation of RMB City in the gallery’s entrance space, where visitors could access a fictional Chinese city constructed in the online virtual world of Second Life.
Cao Fei’s practice bridges film, digital media, photography, sculpture, performance and installation, all of which capture her fascination with the responses of human behaviour to the rapid technological developments of the last two decades. This engagement begins with her home country of China and the accelerated, at times chaotic, changes that have shaped her generation. From this context, she has explored the broader experience of virtuality and its potential to alter our perception of self and change the ways in which we understand reality. Her work continuously navigates the physical and virtual, the real and the imagined. Through this, she collapses together past, present and future time frames in order to produce new and fantastical realities for the characters that exist within each of her compelling narratives. From the utopic and dystopic potentials of modern-day cities, to the alienating effects of mechanised labour, Cao Fei addresses these far-reaching topics the creation of surreal encounters and with a subtle sense of play. Although each of her worlds appear to teeter on the edge of apocalyptic uncertainty, her characters navigate complex realities with vigour and agency, harnessing the unique possibilities of technology to shape a collective future.
Most recently, we presented Cao Fei first ever UK institutional solo exhibition, Blueprints, at the Serpentine Galleries, which I co-curated with Joseph Constable. The project included the world premiere of ambitious virtual and augmented reality artworks, The Eternal Wave (2020), produced in collaboration with Acute art, and the artist’s latest film, Nova. Both of these works mark the culmination of Cao Fei’s extensive research in Beijing over the last five years, examining the social history and urban transformation of the city’s Jiuxianqiao district where she lives and works. Her feature film Nova was produced out of this research and was presented within an immersive, site-specific installation that also brought together a selection of her previous film works to expand the themes of automation and technology upon which she continuously draws. The exhibition created a layering of virtual, physical and cinematic spaces for the visitor to encounter, leading them through alternative realities and multiple frames of experience.
In addition to selecting works by Cao Fei, this idea to invite her to present the work of emerging artists is inspired by the brilliant show that she curated with Yang Beichen at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf in 2018, titled New Metallurgists – an exhibition that featured sixteen works by eight contemporary artists from China in order to reflect a multiplicity of voices and perspectives. It is exciting to continue this dialogue with Cao Fei and focus on a new generation of artists from China – it has only just begun.
With the collaboration of