On the wall of a lobby, against a deep red velvet backdrop, a prophetic message welcomes the visitor: ‘In our splendid universe, motion pictures mirror our reality’. In Cao Fei’s ‘Blueprints’, different worlds merge and flip. Combining theatrical sets, photography, moving images, and her first VR work, the artist traces patterns of reality, teleporting visitors through distant territories and histories. Focusing on the district of Jiuxianqiao in Beijing, where the first Chinese computer was invented, the exhibition offers local perspectives of contemporary technological developments in China, mapping feelings that resonate globally.
The opening gallery is transformed into the Hongxia Theatre, a former cinema and community space for factory workers in Jiuxianqiao, Beijing. The old-fashioned Soviet aesthetic hints to a time when USSR groups, together with local communities, turned a rural Jiuxianqiao into an important centre for advanced electronics and computer industries. Carefully displayed film reels, scientific magazines and memorabilia, and a documentary ingeniously set within an ATM conjure narratives of the Sino-Soviet relationship and of a disappearing community, of which the artist has been gathering traces for the past four years. In the video, retired factory staff, urban historians and architects powerfully dispense local perspectives of a once burgeoning area, soon to be demolished and sold. In a memory theatre, where information needs to be assembled with attention, like pieces of an intricate puzzle, past utopias come to the foreground, unveiling present complexities.
The separation between different temporalities and spaces vanishes in ‘The Eternal Wave’ (2020), Fei’s first VR work. Open a door and, in the blink of an eye, the Theatre kitchen turns into its accurate digital rendering. The retrofuturist aesthetic highlights the overlap of temporal layers, while inverting the look of a ‘new’ medium to revive fantasies of a past. Inside the VR, the visitor’s perspective shifts. A fan suggests we may be stuck in a loop: a wormhole. By interacting with kitchen appliances, visitors move through a computer laboratory, an asteroid field, encountering ‘in the flesh’ Soviet scientists, a boy in search of his dad, and a couple kissing: the protagonists in the feature-length film ‘Nova’ (2019), which is screened in another gallery room. Spectators enter the narrative first-person, confronted with ghosts from a past, their thwarted cross-cultural romance, their slippages. Physically moving between a dense network of political and fantastical references, love affairs and digital bodies, the self splits: everything is as fascinating and organically connected as disorientating.
If the exhibition includes the drives and wonders of technological progress, it also unveils dystopic and alienating aspects. The impact of tech-manufacturing labour and automation on human feelings, ways of life and imagination are presented with wit and humour in a poetic combination of two videos, which feel more insightful and visceral than immersive VR. In ‘Whose Utopia’ (2006) Fei documents dreams and everyday realities of Chinese factory workers. Among rows of machines, they confess unrealised aspirations, and roleplay virtuoso performances, including ballet and Thai Chi. Meanwhile, ‘Asia One’ (2018) shows the loneliness and repetitiveness in a fictional automated logistic centre, as the cold, machinic environment is gradually unravelled via the imaginations of young warehouse workers. They’ve fallen in love but struggle to find meaning and a sense of identity in their Amazon-like rotten modernity. Soothing piano melodies guide the camera through perfectly coordinated assembly lines. The dream of efficiency is interrupted by an impromptu soccer game with pomelos and choreographies around giant inflatable octopus in the style of old propaganda films for technological progress. Embracing magical thinking, the videos offer a temporary ‘way out’ of reality for characters and viewers alike. Yet, the dehumanising feeling of mechanised labour and the invisible human ghosts in the machines, remain all the more present.
The strength of Fei’s show lies in its combination of different perspectives which amplify the field of social consciousness, beyond a unique narrative or single reality. Scientists, factory workers, avatars, lovers, gallery invigilators in the same uniform as film characters, and visitors all contribute to knowledge production in the factory museum. As ‘screen time’ dictates the pace of our days, and a full-on digital future is at our doorstep, the exhibition helps to maintain a critical outlook on technological progress, what it takes, and what gets lost. In a moment of abeyance, it helps to roleplay utopian memories for blueprinting the future. As I exit the gallery to enter a quarantine limbo, and traverse Kensington Gardens with my mask on, the grass seems greener.