Digital pioneer Cao Fei sees and reflects modern China from an artist’s angle. Born to a prominent socialist-realist sculptor father, Cao was raised in Guangzhou – a city close to Hong Kong and one of the first to experience change in the 1980s. The multimedia artist’s work reflects China’s rapid development, which she witnessed first as a child in Guangzhou, then when she moved to Beijing over a decade ago – it’s no surprise she has represented her home country three times at the Venice Biennale.

After creating powerful video works, such as Whose Utopia (2006), which focused on the assembly-line workers of a light bulb factory factory in the Pearl River Delta, Cao is perhaps best known for developing the virtual RMB City in the online world of Second Life, documented in a 2008 exhibition at Serpentine Galleries in London. Today, her work features at its heart an ongoing exploration of virtuality: ‘When looking at the boundaries between the virtual and real world my answer is light, something visible and something invisible,’ she told Wallpaper* in 2017. ‘To me, light represents thoughts.’

 Live in RMB City, 2009
A young woman stood next to a robot in a dark alleyway
Asia One, 2018

Earlier this year, Cao became the first Chinese artist to hold a solo exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou. It featured her first feature-length film, HX, which will also be on display at the artist’s upcoming ‘Blueprints’ show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Its title derives from the Beijing neighbourhood where Cao’s studio is located. Since 2015, the artist has been conducting painstaking research on the history of a 1950s state-owned cinema complex in a fast-disappearing district. Once considered a utopian vision and built with the help of the USSR and GDR, the neighbourhood is set to be demolished to make way for more high-rises.§

A portrait of Cao Fei
Cao Fei. Photography: Myrzik and Jarisch