China was already in Covid-19 lockdown when Cao Fei’s show opened at Serpentine Galleries in early March. No one knew whether the artist herself, who is based in Beijing, would be in town. But, on the morning, there she was: being photographed behind a wooden reception desk in the south gallery, which had been transformed to look like the lobby of the 1950s-era cinema that has been her studio since 2015. On the wall behind the desk, against a red velvet backdrop, gold characters spelled out: ‘In our splendid universe, motion pictures mirror our reality.’
Most of us are living a very different reality now. In early March, China was living the UK’s future, although we couldn’t yet imagine it. The future arrived, then overtook us – and now we’re struggling to catch up. Cao has spent her career diagnosing the social effects of this kind of temporal dislocation. She made her name in the 2000s with videos such as Cosplayers (2004), in which teens dressed as videogame characters roam the urban hinterlands of high-rise contemporary China; Whose Utopia? (2006), the oldest piece on show at Serpentine, where workers in a giant electronics factory play out their fantasy lives; and RMB City (2007–11), which took place on the virtual platform Second Life. Nowhere has the future arrived as quickly and as unevenly as in China. Cao’s particular genius is finding the pathos in the bumpy collision between the future and our fantasies of it.
‘Blueprints’ is billed as a survey but, in fact, hangs off a suite of works that centre on the Hongxia Theatre, whose lobby is uncannily re-created in the first room. An industrial district in the northeast of Beijing, Hongxia (Red Dawn) was built with the support of Soviet and East German advisers in the 1950s and became an important centre for the emerging Chinese electronics and computing industries. The cinema was shuttered in 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Cao moved there when her previous studio was slated for demolition; now Hongxia, too, is on the point of being bulldozed as part of the city’s endless regeneration.
Step though the red curtains on either side of the lobby desk and you’re in a darkened room in front of Nova (2019), first shown at the Centre Pompidou last year. The film tells the story of a Chinese computer scientist who falls in love with a Soviet ‘expert’ with whom he is working before she is abruptly recalled to the USSR. Somewhere down the line and for reasons that remain unclear, the scientist sends his son into the future – a parallel dimension, vaguely reminiscent of Blade Runner (1982), from which the boy cannot return. The aesthetic is high-production kitsch, laden with consciously recycled sci-fi tropes (the future-dwellers wear X-ray specs; everything is saturated with blue-purple light), overwrought clichés of individual sacrifice for collective progress, and hammy acting. At nearly two hours long, Nova is an art/cinema hybrid that, with its maximalist aesthetic and minimalist plot, fails to convince as either. It has none of the wit or insight that light up a work like Asia One (2018), screening in a side gallery – a tale of thwarted human romance in the era of unrelenting mechanical efficiency.
More engaging is The Eternal Wave (2020): a VR piece that re-creates the Hongxia Theatre’s kitchen as it appears in Nova. Produced by Acute Art, it is – surprisingly – Cao’s first foray into the medium. Pots bubble on the stove and you can flick between television channels before being transported to Nova’s lab, where you glimpse a stolen kiss between the film’s heroes. Back in the kitchen, the window opens to reveal that you’re in the middle of an asteroid field. What is ‘inside’ anyway? Use your imagination: you could be anywhere.
Main image: Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers, London, Berlin and Los Angeles
First published in Issue 211