SCREEN DIARY: Cao Fei BLUEPRINTS at Serpentine Gallery (11 AUG 2020)

Cao Fei’s reworked installation BLUEPRINTS at the reopened Serpentine Gallery is well worth a visit. Now booking until 31 AUG & scheduled to run until 13 SEP, there’s more than enough feature-length content for a double dip…

By RADIANT CIRCUS

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This is a film still from Cao Fei's THE ETERNAL WAVE (2020) at Serpentine Gallery.
SCREEN DIARY: Cao Fei’s THE ETERNAL WAVE (2020) at Serpentine Gallery.

Cao Fei BLUEPRINTS runs at Serpentine Gallery until 13 SEP 2020 – FREE!/Booking required.

It takes something to convince a diehard horror head that there’s anything new to see in the rotting universe of zombie horror, but Cao Fei does just that with one of her films on show at the Serpentine. LA TOWN (2014, 42mins) is set in a post apocalyptic world constructed entirely from miniature dioramas with occasional overlaying French dialogue to keep everything post-modernly mythical. Its many onscreen horrors compel through mostly static detail.

The tropes of the zombie apocalypse are beautifully realised, from the ravaged supermarket shelves, to livestock sharing the upper stories of the rooftop dwellings of a humanity in retreat, and the vainglorious government fleeing the scene. But then there’s a seated marching band, like a surreal chorus witnessing humanity’s implosion. Further surrealism – a flying whale, a giant octopus – bleeds into disturbing scenes of perpetual sex and sexual violence. Straddling Europe for a suitable point of comparison, Berlin’s New Objectivists might have titled such tableaux vivants Sex Murder or, as in the original haunting German, Lustmord.

The programme notes describe LA TOWN as “stopmotion animation” but that’s all about frame by frame advance… Movement here seems to come from a cunning illusion of constantly shifting focus and occasional hydraulic live action: a woman “rides” her sexual partner, a miniature mechanical piston where his penis should be, like one of those fuck machines in the basement salons of Soho you’re probably too polite to imagine anyone actually buying….

The pounding electronic score, cinematic lighting and editing give LA TOWN a deeply ominous atmosphere and profound sense of threat. It’s a convincing slice of world building where the detritus of capitalism haunts every frame. But, it’s the miniature details of murder and mayhem that loom largest, Cao Fei’s attention to shocking detail the stuff of nightmare.

This is a film still from Cao Fei's NOVA (2019) at Serpentine Gallery (11 AUG 2020).
SCREEN DIARY: Cao Fei’s NOVA (2019) at Serpentine Gallery.

Like cinemas, reopened galleries have had to adapt their attractions to ensure COVID-19 security for their guests. Serpentine is offering booked time slots and, in addition to some reworked exhibits, has imposed a one way system around their space.

Other major works on display include find Cao Fei’s retro science fiction film NOVA (2019, 110mins), ASIA ONE (2018, 63 mins), and WHOSE UTOPIA (2006, 20 mins). One work, RMB CITY: A SECOND LIFE CITY PLANNING (2007), has been removed after the exhibitions’ March opening and sudden shutdown to allow for social distancing. Another, THE ETERNAL WAVE (2020), has been completely re-worked from its Virtual Reality origins, and is now offered as a smaller – and glitchier – Augmented Reality (AR) exhibit.

All three of the major installations projected at Serpentine are approaching feature length which makes traversing the gallery in your allotted hour a logistical challenge if you like to see everything. We’ve commented before on the frustration of encountering looped 60 minute narrative artworks in the shuffle and stop conveyor belt of gallery shows (you literally don’t know what you’re seeing). But here the conventions of COVID-19 actually worked in our favour. RADIANT CIRCUS had booked one of the last slots in the day and, given that it was hot as Hades outside, the relative quiet meant that we weren’t wading through crowds to work out what was going on.

Looking back, RADIANT CIRCUS would like to see all of NOVA in a properly cinematic setting. Although this is suggested with a row of wooden seats at the Serpentine, clunky central sound amplification made the film an uncomfortable viewing experience. We also had to walk through ASIA ONE – a piece about humanity and modern machinery – on our timed way to the exit, but it’s good to leave feeling hungry for more.

We should make special mention of the marvellous gallery assistant meeting guests in the show’s lobby (a facsimile of the former cinema and community space, the Hongxia Theatre in Beijing, where Cao Fei now works). This plucky Serpentine staffer helped us overcome the challenge of experiencing THE ETERNAL WAVE, persisting with glitchy software that struggled to locate the artwork on its GPS and thus kept throwing us out. What we did see of THE ETERNAL WAVE was great, including an XTRO-like birthing of an entire adult human – complete with space suit – from the confines of a kitchen sink… “Have you seen my Daddy?”.

A word too of feedback to the Serpentine: placing detailed instructions about how to access the AR online (where we missed them entirely…) or inside the tiny AR gallery spaces themselves makes for awkward crowd management. There’s plenty of room in the larger entrance lobby to get folk tooled up… Similarly, dispensing with a paper guide to the artworks is inevitable but with so much wall space available, larger interpretation panels would have made the process of finding out what we’re seeing – and, most importantly, how long it lasts and how often it’s looped – far easier.

Having said all of that, there’s ample scope and reason for a double dip, particularly given the feature length attractions on the inside. RADIANT CIRCUS is particularly looking forward to a second sit through of LA TOWN and will try out one of the other exhibits on a return visit (assuming the Serpentine will allow just a little more than the allotted hour…).

And that’s the meat of it… 

Cao Fei BLUEPRINTS runs at Serpentine Gallery until 13 SEP 2020 – FREE!/Booking required.


Main featured image: Cao Fei’s LA TOWN (2014).


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