Cao Fei makes artwork that is a both a physical product and a reflection of internet culture. In 2008, she built a RMB City on Second Life, featuring the avatar China Tracy, and sold the real estate to an art collector. For the short film La Town, she bought toys online and used stop animation to depict Santa Claus riding a high-speed train, influenced by an actual train crash in her native China. She made Haze and Fog in 2013, a 46-minute silent film about zombies. On a deeper level she engages with the challenges facing a rapidly changing China and how to reckon an ancient culture with an evolving technological society.
Her most recent work is the BMW Art Car #18, a carbon black M6 GT3 revealed today at the Minsheng Art Museum in Beijing. But unlike her well-known predecessors Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder, who painted early BMW art cars, Fei works in multimedia and made a video that uses augmented reality and will be accessible through an iOS app.
She spent three years conceiving the project commissioned by BMW. For her research, she spent time on the track with racecar driver Cyndi Allemann and visited a BMW factory in Tiexi, China. She is the youngest art car artist at 39, but she already has had an art career that spans two decades and includes prestigious exhibitions and a 2016 retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York City. Her car follows the work of John Baldessari, revealed in December at Art Basel.
While she represents an emerging generation of artists, her work engages with China’s past in public and personal ways. Her father was a sculptor who adhered to the party standard in his works, according to a New York Times profile.
In the short clip featured in the film Unmanned, a young man dressed in traditional clothing is shown crossing a bridge where he encounters modern-day China as a city and industrial society. In the next scene he is sitting cross legged, wearing a VR headset, surrounded by a parking lot stacked with white cars. The set transforms into the digital realm as he channels beams of neon lights through his fingertips and the dazzling art car appears as the bass-heavy hip-hop beat fades out in the background.
The multimedia installation of her work will be on view at the BMW Experience in Shanghai along with a VR experience at Art Basel in Switzerland in June. But at the core of the work is technical engineering, speed, and 586 horsepower; in November, the Cao Fei art car will be raced at the FIA GT World Cup in Macau by BMW factory driver Augusto Farfus, who also raced the Baldessari art car earlier in the year. The art car series dates back to 1975, and it comes along at irregular intervals. Fei’s meditation on time and use of physical space suits the pressing issues of the day.