Cao Fei on collective confinement and the significance of home 

Cao Fei on collective confinement and the significance of home 

The Chinese multimedia artist’s new installation at the West Bund Art & Design Fair in Shanghai meditates on humanity’s capacity to unite in shared isolation 

Chinese artist Cao Fei’s plans to collaborate on a commission with Audemars Piguet Contemporary – which has been working with a global network of artists since 2012 – well preceded the dawn of the global pandemic. In October 2019, the artist visited the brand’s HQ in Le Brassus, Switzerland to finalise ideas for a new artwork. 

But as cases of Covid-19 began to accelerate and worldwide travel restrictions were imposed, the artist found herself stranded in Singapore with her family and unable to return home to Beijing. In response to these events, a new project was conceived, one that imagined the societal commonalities in a global crisis and reflected our new over-familiarity with home. The resulting work, Isle of Instability, exhibited within the Audemars Piguet space at the West Bund Art & Design Fair, charts the artist’s personal experience of living under lockdown – with her daughter playing the roles of assistant and actor – staged as a proxy for collective confinement. ‘As I wasn’t allowed to go out during the lockdown, home — the smallest social unit of a physical living space and a temple for introspection, as well as the last bastion for mankind to escape from the external crisis — had become the medium for facing this urgent response,’ the artist explains.

Image by Cao Fei in quarantine with her family in Singapore, preparing Isle of Instability, 2020, commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary. All images courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet

Cao Fei’s innovative and often-surrealist multimedia practice examines collapsing futures, internet culture and the complex and rapidly evolving transformation of contemporary China. For Isle of Instability the artist gazed inwards, delving into the psychological repercussions of the pandemic, collective imprisonment and exile. ‘Cao Fei turned a challenging situation into a unique opportunity, creating work that explores the social realities of daily life under lockdown’, says Denis Pernet, art curator at Audemars Piguet Contemporary. ‘The process of adapting to a new situation alongside the artist is also what distinguishes this Audemars Piguet Contemporary commission. The artist’s infinite curiosity for documenting our present reality will be shared and felt above all.’

Visitors enter a ‘two-room apartment’ – the first is not dissimilar to a conventional art fair booth containing minimalist objects that Cao Fei gathered during her time in quarantine. The second room is a deeply personal, sometimes humourous embodiment of the home, filled with photography, texts, drawings and two video installations featuring the artist’s family and their newly-acquired habits and routines.

Installation view of Cao Fei, Isle of Instability, 2020, commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary. Image courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet

One piece, Outlying Island, sees Cao Fei’s daughter occupying an island the artist constructed in the centre of the living room floor. ‘Our world has been divided into places that have the virus and places that don’t. If it is said that places that are pandemic-free are an “island”, then the virus-rampaging lands are the emptiness outside of this island,’ the artist reflects. ‘Just like Robinson Crusoe is both realistic and symbolic, the notion of island is related to both the experience and the adventure, and is both about self-exile and self-construction, it is both a place of paradise and a place of imprisonment.’

In Isle of Instability, Cao Fei proposes a shared global experience via her own. She illustrates how collective imagination can conquer the limitations and uncertainties imposed on society. As the artist explains, ‘If isolation is going to be the main form of life in the future, then we have to think about how to approach the world that we once relied on for creation.’ §

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