Cao Fei is one of China’s leading contemporary artists. She dragged the art world into the virtual world with RMB City (2007–11), a virtual metropolis built and hosted on the online platform Second Life. Her work continues to explore the fluid boundaries between physical and virtual existence, especially as mediated by art, industry, and technology.
In 2017, Cao Fei was the 18th recipient of the BMW Art Car commission—an initiative started in 1975 by French race car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain. She is the youngest artist and the first Chinese artist to be awarded the commission (previous recipients including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, and Olafur Eliasson).
Cao Fei’s car is built for virtual and spiritual travel, rather than for the road or racetrack. She propels the car into a virtual space, giving it a ‘second life’ through uniting ancient spiritual practices with the latest technological advancements. The project has three parts. There’s the car itself: a BMW M6 GT6 race car stripped back to its matt-black carbon shell—its factory state. There’s a six-minute film, Unmanned, which follows a monk travelling into a virtual future, where he performs a traditional blessing on the driverless car. And there’s an augmented-reality app that creates a virtual installation of swirling bands of light and colour around the car—re-presenting the movements of the monk’s blessing—when viewed through a mobile device.
Our show brings together Unmanned (2017) and an earlier film work, La Town (2014). This film offers another fantastical, but more dystopian, vision—this time told through miniature architectural sets and tiny figurines. Both films demonstrate Cao Fei’s interests in world building, alternative realities, and artificial intelligence, and with exploring the ever-shifting relationships between humanity, technology, and the city.