Audemars Piguet

Cao Fei's Virtual Reality

For 20 years, the Chinese video-maker has been telling the technological and social dynamics of her country, with patience and poetry.
Reading time 3 minutes
Military cotton shirt, Givenchy; cotton top, Dries Van Noten; cotton pants, silicone earring and artist's sneakers; watch “Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet” Automatic Chronograph, in 18-carat pink gold, 41 mm, Audemars Piguet.

Born in 1978, Cao Fei (pronounced zào féi) has always been on the hunt for the human touch. Since her first video, "Imbalance 257", released in 1999, the artist, originally from Guangzhou and the daughter of a famous sculptor, has often explored the way communities interact and style themselves. In 2004 she created "COSplayers", an examination of young people who personify and dress like video game characters. In "i.Mirror" (2007) and "RMB City" (2007-2011), she explored the virtual universe of Second Life.  The creations document the experiences of the artistic avatar and alter ego of China Tracy as she builds a city of pixels and explores the limits of the physical and digital world. 

Her works have been exhibited in the most prestigious artistic institutions of the world, like the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Biennale di Venezia, and Tate Modern in London.  Cao Fei has also presented the exhibition "HX" at the Centre Pompidou, a long-term exploration of the district of Hongxia, Beijing's artistic hub prey to gentrification, accompanied by a science-fiction film, "Nova." Fei has allowed herself to become immersed in her practice, approaching her subjects with great patience. 

In 2006, she launched one of her most important works, "Whose Utopia?", a poetic immersion in a lightbulb factory in the Pearl River Delta, the most economically dynamic region of China. It shows the workers, who embody their most hidden aspirations in their everyday work environment. Thus, we see a girl dressed as a dancer who dances among the machines and a man who plays the electric guitar. Cao Fei sent more than 500 questionnaires to employees, asking about their interests and what they think about before going out to work. She organized workshops with some participants and asked them to paint their vision of utopia, and illustrated the contradiction between individual aspirations and the alienating environment of the factory, where "the bunk beds of the dormitories are the only private spaces, less than two square meters."

In 2018, the artist shot "Asia One" about the first fully automated sorting center in the world. "Technology has developed beyond imagination," she notes. Here, only two humans supervise the plant and the robots are now able to give them "confidence ratings." Cao Fei distances herself from any link with the citizens' assessment system established in 2018 by the Chinese state. "I wanted to show that robots have their own simple and arbitrary procedures. This poses problems because it is a social system that is based on these black and white mechanisms and on an electronic evaluation."

After industrial production, the artist became interested in the prison system for "Prison Architect" (2018), filming a former detention center. This is the common thread of her practice, in which she loves "to base the creative part on a margin of reality, to unfold an invented story onto a real structure."

Military cotton shirt, Givenchy; cotton top, Dries Van Noten; cotton pants, silicone earring and artist's sneakers; watch “Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet” Automatic Chronograph, in 18-carat pink gold, 41 mm, Audemars Piguet.

Photo: Lin Shu. 
Styling: Yuan Qian. 
Assistant stylist: Jianli Wang. 
Study assistant: Xu Zhengyue. 
Hairstylist and Makeup artist: Guo Fei.

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