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Art What!: Cao Fei’s ‘Isle of Instability’ at West Bund Art & Design Shanghai

Screenshot 2020-09-22 at 6.29.14 PM

A portrait of the artist (L) and a study (R) for the artist’s upcoming installation, Isle of Instability, 2020, commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet.

SHANGHAI, CHINA – Contemporary artist Cao Fei will premiere her latest artwork, commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary, in Shanghai at West Bund Art & Design from 11th to 15th November 2020. Open to the public and located within the Audemars Piguet space at the fair, the timely work, titled Isle of Instability, responds to the artist’s time living in isolation with her family since March. It presents audiences with a personal reflection on the global pandemic and the limitations felt on a shared human scale.

Cao Fei is one of the most innovative Chinese artists working globally today. She mixes social commentary, popular aesthetics, references to Surrealism and documentary conventions in her films and installations. Her works reflect on the rapid and muddled changes that are occurring in Chinese society today and often deal with themes of anticipation, questioning the possible collapse of our future while proposing an escape, or a solution, through the potential of humanity: its dreams, imagination, creativity and the individual in relation to the collective.

Audemars Piguet Contemporary was engaged in developing a new artwork commission with the artist well before the onset of the global Covid-19 situation. In October 2019, Cao Fei visited the home of the brand, in Le Brassus, Switzerland, to finalise plans for the artwork. As worldwide cases of Covid-19 grew, Cao Fei and her family found themselves in Singapore unable to return to their home in Beijing due to international travel restrictions. Together, Cao Fei and the Audemars Piguet Contemporary team agreed on a new subject for the commission to reflect the current state of the world. Isle of Instability documents the artist’s personal experience living under lockdown and in turn our shared global experience of confinement.

Isle of Instability was imagined and produced in Singapore, away from the artist’s home, studio and day-to-day habits in Beijing, with her daughter serving as an assistant and actor. This artwork explores the limitations and emotions felt in isolation and the psychological and physical implications 2 on herself as well as her family. It also offers solace to the public and the opportunity to converse about shared experiences and the ways in which humanity deals with uncertainty.

“Being away from home for so long, the foreign culture became familiar, the exotic cuisine became my go-to delicacy, the labyrinth of alleys became my daily routine, the strangers next door became my friendly neighbours, and I, once a guest of this country, became a resident. Lost in transition, certainty has become a luxury,” comments Cao Fei. “During the lockdown, I saw this as a chance to explore our limitations, as well as a chance to practice my adaptability as an artist. Especially as an artist who is so used to working in a studio, I was limited not just by space, but also by the tools that I had access to, like using pen and paper even when more high tech tools weren’t available. Essentially, the entire project was a learning experience and having a new working process, not to mention training my own children as my assistants!” 

“I thought a lot about how the entire world was going through these same conditions together, and beyond the work being so personal, I was exploring the idea of society and all its absurdities, using my own family as a ‘sample’ of what was going on elsewhere,” she adds. “Think about how theme parks like Universal Studios Singapore became so empty without any tourists, with the iconic globe turning with no one there. It made me think about Singapore as a country catered to tourists, where everything is artificial, and the pandemic really revealed how it was so theatrical, like a beautiful empty garden.”

“I suppose COVID-19 could be seen as a signal and warning to the world, but with no clear explanation about what it really is warning us about,” she concludes. “It’s a personal work, but also a monument in the sense that I’d like to imagine how this acts as my little way of documenting history, to be looked back on sometime in the future to mark these changes in our world. Looking out at my balcony in Singapore during lockdown, that was one of the few times I could connect with the outdoors again, looking at the trees and sky, and that really acted as a space and time for me to reflect.”

Says Denis Pernet Art Curator, Audemars Piguet Contemporary: “Cao Fei turned a challenging situation into a unique opportunity, creating work that explores the social realities of daily life under lockdown. The process of adapting to a new situation alongside the artist is also what distinguishes this Audemars Piguet Contemporary commission. The artist’s infinite curiosity for documenting our present reality will be shared and felt above all.”

Isle of Instability will run from 11th to 15th November 2020 at West Bund Art & Design Fair Shanghai, located at the Audemars Piguet space, Hall A of the West Bund Art Centre. West Bund Art Centre, 2555 Long Teng Avenue, Xuhui District, Shanghai

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