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Interview with Artist Cao Fei: Digital Art Pioneer

Cao Fei is one of the most innovative Chinese artists. She was the winner of the 2006 Best Young Artist and 2016 Best Artist Award from the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), and the first Chinese artist to be selected for the BMW Art Car Project. Currently based in Beijing, she mixes social commentary, popular aesthetics, references to Surrealism, and documentary in her films and installations. Cao Fei’s work has been exhibited at international biennales including Venice Biennale. She has had exhibitions and screenings at Tate Modern, Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Palais de Tokyo, and Centre Pompidou.

Published on 16.12.2020

You produced your first play at the age of 16. What was your motivation?

Cao Fei: At the time, I was studying at a high school affiliated with Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. I didn’t think about becoming an artist. Creating the stage play was a very natural process. I just had the idea of creating fun work. I would like to say the motivation was a desire to create.

What has been your biggest creative experiences to date?

Cao Fei: Whose Utopia? (2006) is a 20-minute film shot in a light bulb factory. I filmed many factory workers at that time and the end product is this. It is a rather iconic work. Recently The Guardian has chosen it as one of the 30 works which witness the evolution of video art since the 1960s.

There is a young female worker in this film. I asked her what her dream was, and she said “I really wanted to study dance, but I was the eldest in my family and had many younger siblings. I had to work in this factory to support my family. I had no choice.” So, I proposed to make a video of her dancing inside the factory. It turned out that she had a beautiful peacock dance outfit that was hidden in her dorm room. She dressed up and danced. The rest is history. It became a very iconic photograph.

After about 10 years, I met her again. She had become the CEO of a cultural industrial park and she told me “Your project made me realize that there was a world out there. It did make me feel that I need to leave the factory and change my life.” She pursued her dream, went to university to study English, then went on to lead a company. She even said, “Ms. Cao, I hope we can hold your exhibition in our cultural park in the near future.”

It’s one of the most important creative experiences I’ve ever had. It showed how art could really change an individual’s life. This is when I realized that art has a function. I sometimes doubted whether there was any. We may not be able to see it at that time, or we may not know it at the moment, but art may become a light that can guide people and encourage them to change their lives.

Why did you choose to use multimedia and video for your artistic expression?

Cao Fei: My father is a sculptor, and I grew up watching my dad make sculptures. But then I thought if I continue my parents’ path, I would soon be bored. Growing up, I was exposed to movies, pop culture, and electronic music. When I saw people with digital cameras, DVD players and other new gadgets, I thought I should give it a try. I then realized that I could tell stories through videos and bring emotions to people through colorful, musical, and comprehensive expressions. This format was more satisfying and fitting for the diversity of expression I was looking for.

 You have many artistic practices using cutting-edge technology. What new technologies inspire you to create?

Cao Fei: The BMW Art Car project has been around for 40 years. Andy Warhol was one of the participating artists who designed the art car with paint. Most of the artists who participated in the project designed it from a painting, which means you can see the art car itself with the naked eyes. When this project was offered to me, artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies were gaining traction. So I decided to combine BMW art cars with cutting-edge technologies and thus break with the BMW Art Car’s tradition.

When I did Apple [AR]T Walks in 2019, Augmented Reality technology was already available. Apple invited contemporary artists from around the world who were interested in technologies. They wanted to explore the possibilities of virtual reality and to push the boundaries of creativity through art, and to show users the world of Augmented Reality.

For me, new technologies like Artificial Intelligence will certainly bring challenges and changes. For example, artists might worry whether AI can also paint, or if robots can replace people to create art. Artists have always faced technological challenges throughout history. For example, before the advent of the camera, we only had paintings. I think it is more important to focus on artistic expression than chasing the new medium.

As the first Chinese artist to have a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, your project HX recreates the history of Hong Xia community in Beijing through installations. Why the focus on the past?

Cao Fei: There were several reasons. One is the timing. I started working on this project in 2015. In 2016, I had a retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York, which was my first solo exhibition in the US. That exhibition was actually an inventory of previous works before HX. It is instinctive for me to look at the past. I came to a point where I had to look back at history. This project, HX, is in line with my individual needs to enter a new stage in my creation.

I found a new type of creative space where I can explore ambiguities within history. That’s why the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou was divided into two spaces: one for the past and the other for the future. My work combines the past, present and future in the same space and time. It is not a linear concept, but rather a creation that unfolds simultaneously. I think this is the only way to transcend history. I’m not making a documentary piece on the past. Artists should create a new space based on the history we already know, so that new aspects can be connected to the future.

 How has this pandemic affected or influenced your artistic expression?

Cao Fei: The pandemic interrupted my exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in the UK. We had to suspend the show two weeks after its opening. It was re-opened in September. There was originally a VR piece in this exhibition, but we could not make it available to viewers due to the risk of spreading the virus. In July, before the reopening of the exhibition, we had to transform the VR piece into an AR one. Each visitor could download the app in advance and then see it via AR. I think the pandemic has certainly accelerated the digitalization of the world. This is a time when all sorts of new ways of living have been invented in order to stay connected with others. By now, we’re are so used to this rapid digitalization.

I have a project called Isle of Instability (2020) commissioned by a Swiss watch brand. They invited me to visit their factories in Switzerland to explore artistic creation, but then the pandemic happened and I had to stay in Singapore. I channeled my lockdown experience in Singapore to my work. It was a total departure from their initial ideas – neither about the Swiss watch industry nor the watch makers. The project focus has completely shifted to Southeast Asia, and while it has nothing to do with China or Switzerland, the commonality is the pandemic. It is about the shared challenges that people around the world are facing.

Have you faced difficulties as a female artist?

Cao Fei: I’ve been asked this question so many times. I don’t want to be called as a female artist, but the unignorable fact is, I am a woman and a mother.

As a mother and as an artist, I want my children to enjoy art and be nourished by it. I always invite family to participate in my work. For example, in Isle of Instability (2020), I asked my daughter to be my actress. In HX, I asked my son to star in it. When I was little, my parents often took me to their sculpture studio. I played by the side when they were working. I didn’t learn how they made sculptures, but I could still feel the way they worked. And that certainly had an effect on me – their diligence and the dedication to their art impressed me. This is my motivation to involve my children in my creation.

Some female artists quickly disappear from the spotlight. People feel that the creation of female artists are unstable because they are easily influenced by their family life and emotional attachment. That is why it is important that female artists have the support from their family.

The UNESCO | Sabrina Ho initiative funded a project in Mexico #BeYourVoice, which trained 100 young women to learn VR technology and use it in scenography. What advice would you give to women who want to pursue digital arts?

Cao Fei: VR technology is very difficult to master. This project will allow these women to go into a very cutting-edge field and open up many possibilities for them. I’m looking forward to seeing their VR work. I think VR technology is constantly evolving. It also requires infrastructures including the internet, advanced equipment and applications. It is important to keep learning and up to date with the new technologies.