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Cao Fei Blueprints
Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, Video, 109’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Artist Cao Fei uses Soviet sci-fi to explode time and space as we know it

In Blueprints, the Chinese multimedia artist invites us to experience the past, present, and future as one

While experiencing Cao Fei’s “Eternal Wave”, an all-immersive VR artwork at the Chinese artist’s first major UK show Blueprints, you’ll see a spaceman climbing up out of the sink of Beijing’s Hongxia Theatre kitchen, which has been replicated – both in VR and IRL – to scale in an off-shoot pocket at London’s Serpentine Galleries. Fantasy and reality are blurred in this comforting 1950s facade, complete with a working fan and the comforting hum of the TV. Look beyond the flapping curtains, however, and you’ll see nothing but hurtling asteroids in space, not to mention a clock on the wall that won’t stop spinning.

Stepping into Blueprints is like abandoning all chronological notions of past, present, and future. Instead, time and memory are presented as one amalgamous whole. As if looking at a meticulously drawn ‘blueprint’ of Cao Fei’s subject across many dimensions. The subject in question is the Hongxia (‘Red Dawn’) Theatre in Beijing, a former picture house built for the workers at the nearby computer factory in the 1950s with support from the Soviet Union, and now serves as the artist’s studio.

For three years, Cao Fei has interviewed the residents surrounding the theatre, collecting memories and objects relating not only to the Sino-Soviet relationship – that officially ended in 1966, and marked the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution – but to neighbourhood life, movies, and the influence of Soviet sci-fi. You can see this in the opening gallery of Blueprints, which is transformed into the lobby of the theatre, complete with vintage cinema tickets, magazines, and filmed interviews peppered across the walls. “There’s been no drive by the Chinese government to actually archive any of this stuff,” explains the show’s curator Joseph Constable. “One of the reasons Cao Fei was doing it was because of the feeling of the sense of loss.”

The Hongxia Theatre is revisited again in Nova, Cao Fei’s feature-length sci-fi epic about a computer scientist who’s attempting to turn humans into digital mediums, and submits his own son into a virtual limbo between the past and future. Filmed in the areas surrounding the actual theatre, Cao Fei’s story feels like a modernist rendition of the classic Abraham and Issac, only where Abraham’s faith in God is replaced with the computer scientist’s blind faith in progress, at the expense of his son. Cao Fei’s question is then this: is it a sacrifice worth making?

“This is something that’s obviously particular to China,” says Constable, referencing Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, a period of political and social chaos. “But I think it had wider ramifications on the kinds of technology and different socio-economic systems that drive us and how we survive.” Indeed, much of Cao Fei’s work hints at the contention between technology and human connection. Another film, “Asia One”, is set in an automated warehouse the size of a city, where two humans tend to the mechanism, unable to communicate with one another. As with her other artworks, drawn-out moments of melancholy are punctuated with surreal beauty and humour. In one scene, a 70s-style dance troupe appears and begins to perform a routine in the style of old propaganda films celebrating the technological process.

“Time, for us, is too real, it’s hard to escape. That’s why the scientist sends his son into the machine, maybe I want to escape the timeline” – Cao Fei

Returning to the Hongxia Theatre, with “Eternal Wave”, Cao Fei offers us yet another dimension that – using a futuristic-seeming VR headset – gives us a virtual glimpse into the theatre’s past, of which we, in the present (or future), are a part of. The scientist, who is the protagonist of the film, embarks on a mission to rescue his son across time-space – a story that coincides with our own experience of the story (he’s the astronaut climbing out of the sink). “The stories are mutually supportive,” explains Cao Fei at the exhibition’s opening. “You’re in the VR and you’re like, ‘I’ve seen this before, I’ve met his son. Okay, the son is looking for his dad’. You can piece together what happened.” I mention the clock, spinning in reverse ad infinitum. She responds: “Exactly, you don’t know what it’s reversing into.”

In the next few months, the Chinese government will begin the process of demolishing Hongxia, and with it, its memories and possible futures. While Cao Fei describes Blueprints as her attempt to “destroy linear time”, it’s also a way of preserving the human stories and lived experience attached to the theatre and its past, which ‘progress’ inevitably wants to diminish. “Time, for us, is too real, it’s hard to escape,” says Cao Fei. “That’s why the scientist sends his son into the machine, maybe I want to escape the timeline, you know? And just swim across it. Maybe we can bring unrealised hope and unrealised disappointment from the past into the future, making it real again.”