My Future is not a Dream!
Cao Fei in Hong Kong, Düsseldorf, and New York

Cao Fei is regarded as one of the most important contemporary woman artists. With her films, photographic works, and installations she describes modern society – not only in her home country China, which has been strongly affected by rapid technological and social change. An entire floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt is devoted to her work. Now A hollow in a world too full is on view at the new Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong. Surprisingly, it is her first large exhibition in Asia. New York was faster in this respect: MoMA PS1 presented a Cao Fei retrospective back in 2016, which is being shown at the K21 in Düsseldorf as of the beginning of October. And the artist, who was born in 1978, is also back in New York, in the group exhibition One Hand Clapping at the Guggenheim Museum.

The show in Hong Kong focuses on Cao Fei’s most recent film, Prison Architect, which was commissioned for the Tai Kwun and inspired by this history of this arts and culture center. Until 2006, the building complex housed the police headquarters and prison of the former British crown colony. Herzog & de Meuron elaborately restored the historic ensemble, and two new buildings have been added. Now an ambitious, multidisciplinary cultural program can be experienced at Tai Kwun. In Cao Fei’s one-hour film, a poetic dialog arises across time – between an architect who is commissioned to convert an arts center into a prison, and a poet who during the pro-communist rebellions in Hong Kong in the late 1960s is incarcerated by the colonial police. Prison Architect revolves around issues such as suppression and the longing for political freedom. There is ample footage from the historic rooms of Tai Kwun. In addition to this commissioned work, the exhibition includes installations and other films by the artist. Examples are iMirror (2007), which emerged in the virtual worlds of Second Life, and LA Town (2014), which in suggestive scenes shows toy figures wandering through a post-apocalyptic city. 

Cao Fei also presents an oppressive vision of the near future in Haze and Fog (2013). After being on view in the MMK in Frankfurt in the framework of the photography festival RAY, the film is now one of the highlights of the retrospective in Düsseldorf. It is a kind of zombie film that does not hinge on blood and violence. Rather, with cool images the film focuses on alienation and the decay of social relationships. The photo series My Future is not a Dream (2006), with which Cao Fei is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, is much more optimistic. Young workers in a light-bulb factory “perform” their future dreams in the middle of the factory hall. But the show at K21 also illuminates a hitherto little-known facet of Cao Fei’s work. Alongside videos, photographs, and multimedia installations, it features drawings that were never shown previously in an exhibition.
In New York, Cao Fei is represented in the group exhibition One Hand Clapping, in which the Guggenheim Museum investigates the effects of globalization, with her installation Asia One (2018). At the center is a film shot in one of China’s most advanced logistics centers. Thanks to automation, very little staff is needed. Asia One thinks through this development to the end: In the film the workforce has dwindled to only two workers. They control the automated processes under the camera eyes of a smiling robot. As in many of her works, Cao Fei paints a disconcerting picture of the future. A future in which the roles and tasks of people will be redefined in the face of increasing digitalization. “We are living in end times,” Cao Fei said in an interview with ArtMag. “The end also means the beginning of something else.”

A hollow in a world too full
Until 12/9/2018
Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong

Cao Fei       
10/6/2018 – 1/13/2019
K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf

One Hand Clapping
Until 10/21/2018
Guggenheim Museum, New York