Cao Fei, Nova (2019), video, TRT: 109:00 (image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers)

LONDON — Throughout her wide ranging career, Cao Fei has approached now familiar themes — alienation from our labor, cyber purgatory, gentrification —  with an intimate lens, focusing on how technology and market forces reshape the rhythms of daily life. There’s a knowing wink with her bite, something surreal about her magical versions of the present.

Blueprints, her first solo exhibition in the UK at Serpentine Galleries, leads to an uneasy balancing act, with visitors sliding between feature-length films, VR experiences, and archival research displayed in vitrines. Cao succeeds in creating something like a film set through a series of site specific installations: an AR experience (“The Eternal Wave,” 2020) that mimics her studio’s kitchen , and a completely dark room where her feature length film Nova (2019), about an international science experiment gone wrong, plays on loop.

Installation view of Cao Fei, Blueprints, Serpentine Galleries, London (image courtesy Serpentine Galleries; photo by Gautier Deblonde)

When Cao’s studio was demolished in 2015, she moved to a new space in the former Hongxia Theater, or “HX” project as it is now called — the lobby of which is duly recreated in the first room of Blueprints, from the mint walls down to the deep red velvet curtain. The Hong Xia Theatre was a community space, town hall, discotheque, and canteen, the social hub of the Jiuxianqiao (‘Hong Xia’) district. This district is where some of the first computers in China were made, and vitrines dotted around the gallery display textbooks and newsletters from the time. They house pamphlets, photos, and even a book of admission tokens from the theater, a mini archive attempting a recreation of the real thing. A documentary in which Cao interviews urban historians and people from the area about how rapidly Hong Xia is changing  plays on an ATM replica, tucked away in the corner. This part of the exhibition feels more ethnographic;  and Cao is almost sociological in her considered approach to the people still living in the Hong Xia district, and what residue they may leave behind.

Cao doesn’t necessarily condemn the processes that she depicts. In Asia One (2018), a boy and a girl fall in love on a soulless factory floor, stamping packages with labels day in and day out, shot like a music video. It’s a commentary on mechanized labour and alienation via new technology, but it is also fundamentally a love story. So is the retrofuturist film Nova, which is set in a fictional city doused in LED light, about a man who is doomed to wander as a digital ghost.

Cao Fei, Asia One (2018), video, TRT: 63:20 (image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers
Installation view of Cao Fei, Blueprints, Serpentine Galleries, London (image courtesy Serpentine Galleries; photo by Gautier Deblonde)

His fate is the byproduct of his father’s own romance and scientific experiment, which both fail after another scientist leaves the older man after their research concludes. The Soviet-era science fiction literature and pamphlets on display in the vitrine of the first room reappear as props in Nova, on loan from the former manager of the Hong Xia theatre. Cao delights in linking the digital and the tangible even within the context of the gallery experience itself.

Throughout Blueprints, Cao draws on a kind of magical thinking which posits the real and the virtual as an extension of each other — the whole world a science fiction fever dream where inflatable octopuses on the factory floor are just as real as an astronaut emerging out of a kitchen sink. In Whose Utopia (2006) workers at a Siemens company factory in the Pearl River Delta region describe their dreams to the artist, before enacting them in full costume, slipping between their reality and their visions of the future. In an interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist for the exhibition’s catalogue, Cao notes that this factory is gone now, yet with Blueprints, she works primarily as an anthropologist of sorts, creating a space where the past and the future are not so easily demarcated.

Cao Fei, Nova (2019), video, TRT: 109:00:00 (image courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers)

Cao Fei: Blueprints continues through September 13 at Serpentine Galleries (Kensington Gardens, London). The exhibition was curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Joseph Constable.

Sanjana Varghese is a journalist and researcher based in London. She writes about technology, culture and power, and has previously written for the New Statesman, Wired UK, Vice and others.