Cao Fei is teleporting you from one constantly changing city to another. Step through the doors of this London show and suddenly you’re in her Beijing studio, walking through the foyer of the former cinema and theatre it’s housed in.
She’s filled the space with old theatre tickets, film canisters and photos of people who used to work there. This building was once an auditorium, now it’s an artist’s studio. It’s changed from place of leisure to place of production. It’s a transformation that you’ll see everywhere in her art.
Slip through the side door and you’ll find yourself in a sterile room. Plonk on the VR headset and now you’re in the theatre’s kitchen, turning on the radio, flicking through the newspaper; then whoosh, you’re moving through an old electronics factory filled with kissing workers; then whoosh again, you’re sat in the theatre, watching a film next to a woman telling you that she has to leave the country.
Time is slipping, narratives are falling apart, reality is spinning into fantasy, all to symbolise society’s constant state of flux.
‘Nova’ is the centrepiece of the show, a feature-length film about a man losing his son in cyberspace. It’s gorgeous – you can tell it was shot by an artist – but it’s overlong, poorly scripted and badly acted. It would, rightfully, be torn apart if it was screened in a cinema, and it doesn't fare all that much better in a gallery.
Much better are the films and installations in the side rooms. In ‘La Town’, Cao Fei creates a stop-motion dystopia filled with amoral humans and rampaging giant turtles. In ‘Asia One’, young Chinese factory workers fall in love while fighting for a sense of identity in a whirlpool of mechanised production, sticking labels on boxes in some neon Amazon-like warehouse. They’re trying to find joy and meaning in a rancid version of modernity.
Everywhere in this show you find people and places being transformed by work and capitalism, surveillance and control. It’s a science fiction world filled with astronauts and police, giant octopuses and artificial intelligence, with all the humans struggling to maintain a grip on reality, and themselves. As life accelerates ever faster, Cao Fei’s fantastical sci-fi art is immediately and worryingly relatable.