Cao Fei is one of China’s leading contemporary artists. She is a world-builder and a world bender—constantly exploring the boundaries between physical and virtual existence, especially as mediated by art, industry, and technology. The spectre of a new China being radically reshaped by technology and rapid globalisation is never far from the surface.
In 2017, Cao Fei became the youngest artist and the first Chinese artist commissioned to make a BMW art car—an initiative started in 1975 by French race car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain. Where earlier artists (including Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and John Baldessari) treated the car as a canvas to be painted, Cao Fei built a vehicle for virtual and spiritual travel as well as for the track. BMW initially took some convincing.
Cao Fei’s BMW project propels the car into virtual space by uniting today’s technological achievements with ancient spiritual practices. Her project has three parts. There’s the car itself: a BMW M6 GT6 race car stripped back to its matt-black carbon shell—its factory state. There’s a six-minute film, which follows a monk travelling into a virtual future, where he performs a traditional blessing on a driverless car. And there’s an augmented-reality app that creates a virtual installation of swirling bands of light and colour around the car—re-presenting the movements of the monk’s blessing—when viewed through a mobile device.
This exhibition presents the project’s film. Unmanned is itself a vehicle—a hypnotic mash of promotional car advert, music clip (soundtrack by Jamie XX), and sci-fi video art. It is paired with an earlier film work, which plays in the Auditorium. La Town (2014) offers another fantastical, but more dystopian, vision of a city in the aftermath of an unknown disaster—told through miniature architectural models and figurines. Both films demonstrate Cao Fei’s interests in world building and alternate realities, and with exploring the ever-shifting relationships between humanity, technology, and the city.