When speaking about Blueprints, her solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in London curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Joseph Constable, Cao Fei stated that ‘now is the new time for humans to discover the universal again. If you’re talking about a dead planet, it’s a signal for people to think about what we are doing’. As a result of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, Blueprints had initially closed to the public, along with countless other exhibitions across the world, but has now reopened for public viewing.
Embedded within the title of Cao Fei’s exhibition is an impulse for world-building, hinting to the open-ended process through which her artworks propose alternative plans. The pieces suggest templates for how humans might live their lives, navigate their mutable cities, and share their data. They also explore how humans tell their stories and form kinships across time and space. Cao Fei’s work further prompts viewers to consider time travel, presenting spaces where the past, present, and future intermingle. Beyond dissecting a simple delineation between utopia or dystopia, or worlds that are distant or elsewhere — it investigates how our realities can be inferred as hazy images. And how these fragmented realities can be pieced together and held in place over time.
At the centre of Blueprints is a research project that Cao Fei has worked on for the past five years, examining the social history and urban transformation of Beijing’s Jiuxianqiao (‘Hong Xia’) district, where her studio, the Hongxia Theatre, is located. The theatre was built during a period of intense industrial development throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s — fuelled by the assistance of communist allies in the USSR and DDR. During this time, Jiuxianqiao changed from a rural area into a conglomerate of factory infrastructures focused on the development of advanced electronics. The first chapter of Blueprints is solely dedicated to these findings, encompassing a site-specific installation and her feature-length film, Nova (2019).
When Blueprints debuted in London earlier this year, travelling was prohibited throughout Beijing due to Coronavirus. For Cao Fei, the exhibition became a conduit for travel. “Even if visitors can’t visit Beijing right now, they can still jump into a corner of Beijing through the work’; they may not be able to be here physically — but they can make a temporal and spatial jump virtually and cinematically.” Three weeks later, the London exhibition closed due to the spread of Coronavirus.
Blueprints originally included the world premiere of The Eternal Wave (2020), Cao Fei’s first virtual reality work, produced in collaboration with Acute Art. This experience began in a physical rendition of the kitchen space in the Hongxia Theatre. From this starting point, visitors would be taken on a multi-sensory journey through various portals, traversing the boundaries between time and space to explore the computers of the early electronics industry in China, as well as the areas in and around the Hongxia Theatre.
In response to the current situation, Acute Art has collaborated with Cao Fei on an augmented reality version of the kitchen space in which The Eternal Wave begins. Continuing the artist’s exploration of virtual possibilities, this new iteration of the project responds to the current moment by shifting from the VR headset to the smartphone screen, an experimentation with technology that reflects a changed reality to the one in which the exhibition opened.
The pandemic has put the intention of the exhibition into sharp perspective. During this monumental year, with travel restrictions in place and borders closing around the globe, our sense of physical stasis is acute. Coronavirus has taken much away, but it has also fostered a shared, universal experience to be explored, together.
Now that Blueprints has reopened to the public, we can collectively tread with wonder into physical spaces once more — investigating how our world has been transformed, forever.