Curatorial – Out of Blueprints (come new realities)
While speaking about Blueprints, her solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in London, Cao Fei stated that ‘now is the new time for the human to discover the universal again. If you’re talking about a dead planet, I think maybe it’s a signal for people to think about what we are doing’. As a result of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, Blueprints recently closed to the public, along with countless other exhibitions across the world that are currently in a suspended state of postponement, or worse still, faced with cancellation.
Embedded within the title of Cao Fei’s exhibition is an impulse for world-building, hinting to the open-ended process through which her artworks propose alternative plans, models or templates for how we might live our lives, how we navigate our mutable cities, share our data, tell ours and others’ stories, and form kinships across time and space. When watching and experiencing Cao Fei’s works, we continue to think about the notion of time travelling, of how she creates a series of spaces where the past, present and future are allowed to coalesce. This is not about a simple delineation between utopia or dystopia, or even imagining worlds that are distant or elsewhere; rather it is about how our realities can be understood as hazy images, fragments that are pieced together over time and held precariously together.
At the centre of the Blueprints is a research project that Cao Fei has been working on for the past five years, examining the social history and urban transformation of Beijing’s Jiuxianqiao (‘Hong Xia’) district, where her studio, the Hongxia Theatre, is located. The theatre was built during a period of intense industrial development throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, fuelled by the assistance of communist allies in the USSR and DDR, in which Jiuxianqiao changed from a rural area into a conglomerate of factory infrastructures geared towards the development of advanced electronics in China. The first chapter of Cao Fei’s Serpentine exhibition was dedicated to this project, encompassing a site-specific installation, her feature-length film, Nova (2019), and a virtual reality experience, The Eternal Wave (2020).
When Blueprints opened in London, it was not considered safe to travel to Beijing, as the city was living in a state of lockdown preventing physical movement. For Cao Fei, this new body of work became a method of time travel for its visitors: ‘even if they can’t come over to Beijing right now, they can still jump into Beijing, a corner of Beijing’; we may not be able to get there physically, but we can make a temporal and spatial jump – temporarily, virtually and cinematically. Three weeks later, the exhibition is closed to the public and the sense of lockdown, inhibited movement and physical isolation, has become a new reality in cities and towns all over the world.
Out of blueprints come new realities. This is a statement and situation that we are grappling with now that Cao Fei’s exhibition has been forced to close, but it is also a starting point to be productive rather than resolute. At a moment when travel restrictions are closing borders internationally, and our sense of physical stasis has never felt more apparent, what does it mean to ‘discover the universal’ again, to find connections in other spaces, and to travel to other places and times? This online programme begins by responding to the sense of a universal experience created by COVID-19, but more importantly it is concerned with providing a small but hopefully meaningful platform for artists and audiences through a series of works that can be freely accessed digitally around the world, to show support and solidarity with artists affected by the virus.
– Hans Ulrich Obrist and Joseph Constable