Cao Fei

Blueprints

Essay by Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo

Following Cao Fei’s recent Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize ‘win’, Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo investigates the artist’s incorporation of science-fiction narratives and exploration of technology’s role in shaping our collective futures against the backdrop of China’s ongoing conquest of space.  


“We have a winner!” the Deutsche Börse website published after Cao Fei was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021, staged at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. For art world specialists, the reading is easy, perhaps too easy. But for the rest, a few questions quickly arise: who is Cao Fei; what is the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize; and who wins?

Cao Fei is probably one of the most innovative Chinese artists to emerge on the international scene. Her career has been meteoric. In 2000, Fei was still a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts when she was ‘discovered’ by curator Hou Hanru, who introduced her to the art world. Since then, Cao Fei, who is best known for her multimedia and video productions, has presented work at the Venice Biennale, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Guggenheim Museum, New York, amongst many others. It was for her first large-scale solo exhibition in the UK, Blueprints (2020) at the Serpentine Gallery, London (supported by LUMA Foundation and Muse, the Rolls-Royce Art programme), that she was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. The other nominees were Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena and Zineb Sedira.

The Deutsche Börse is of course an international exchange organisation and innovative market infrastructure provider, offering customers a wide range of products, services and technologies across the entire value chain of financial markets. Perhaps one of the broadest questions when thinking about the current global political context is: why did a Chinese artist win an award from a German exchange organisation at an English gallery for the exploration of photography?

In attempting to answer this question posed by the price of photography, one could start with the exhibition’s title. A blueprint is a reproduction of a technical or engineering drawing through a process of contact printing on light-sensitive sheets. It was introduced by the English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, and used widely for over a century. One might, in turn, ask: what is Cao Fei’s engineering project? Her presentation at the Serpentine Gallery came shortly after her latest commission was exhibited on the rooftop of the National Gallery of Singapore: a large-scale, kinetic sculptural installation entitled 浮槎 Fú Chá, alluding to a mythical Chinese raft that not only sails across the ocean, but also floats up towards Tianhe (both a translation of “Milky Way” as well as the name of the new Chinese space station, which recently launched its first module). At the top of Cao Fei’s rooftop structure flashed a neon message: “Almost Arriving”.

It is also helpful to go back in time. In October 1957, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Russian satellite Sputnik triggered the Space Race. The launch ushered in a new era of political, military, technological and scientific advances. Today, half a century later, in the context of planetary crises which threaten our collective future – from climate and biodiversity to pollution and waste – many humans are re-thinking alternative ways of living, whilst others of continuing the conquest of space. In 2020, the 3D-printed building company ICON won a contract from NASA to develop a robotic, extraterrestrial construction system for the Moon. Furthermore, a well-known South African entrepreneur and business tycoon has founded an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company, SpaceX, that uses engines powered by cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen. An American rover on Mars not only looks for signs of habitable conditions in the planet’s ancient past, but also for signs of microbial life in the present.

Following centuries of isolation, the Asian giant has undergone, in just a few decades, some of its most significant transformations in its very long history, particularly across coastal and industrial areas. However, China seems reluctant to choose between the innovations of the West and the traditional immobilities of the East, yet is determined to undertake the modernisation of its economy. Cao Fei’s characters navigate these chaotic realities with vigour and agency by harnessing the unique possibilities of technology. It is impossible not to think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian science-fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Steven Spielberg’s film Real Player One (2018) or the young entrepreneur who bought a digital artwork for $69.3 million at Christie’s on 11 March 2021: the same person who owns millions of hectares of virtual land, who might soon begin building his foundation thanks to Frank Gehry; perhaps in a few months his new digital art archipelago will be ready to show his NFT collection.

Cao Fei’s research has a complex, open structure that corresponds to the irreducible depth of the themes she explores. Her conceptual approaches consist of making evident the fact that the subjects of representations of labour are not absent from art production. More specifically, her films suggest that the visual strategies of ironic simulation might not have come to an end as Benjamin Buchloh stated when The Forgotten Space (2010), one of the most important film essays by Noel Burch and Allan Sekula, came out. Cao Fei’s work presumes that simulacrum will serve the purpose of conveying workers’ aesthetic, social and political experiences. Whilst actual labour conditions are no mystery, Chinese workers pay a particularly heavy human price in enabling our civilisation to “go-green”, especially in the Heilongjiang province, where such activity occurs in an atmosphere saturated by hydrofluoric acid. China is the leader in the production and trading of rare substances crucial in the production of “clean” energy, electric vehicles and consumer electronics; the very same used by us every day and by Cao Fei in unveiling her narratives about development, love and technology.

The work of Cao Fei thus possesses a strong common thread: the denunciation of the communist utopias of the past, as well as China’s capitalist rise in the last twenty years. In charting the transitions that Chinese society is undergoing and benefiting from, is she merely criticising a culture ruled by video games and hyper-consumerism?

With policymakers recognising science-fiction as a potentially powerful tool for promoting state-sanctioned ideology, government agencies have encouraged Chinese filmmakers to incorporate such narratives which align with the regime’s broader ideological and technological ambitions. In other words, China uses mythology and science-fiction to sell itself to the world, as we can see today through its space programme. Cao Fei asks questions about technology’s shaping of a collective future, but who is part of this collective? The fantastical aspects of Fei’s work might explain why the science-fiction genre is being promoted internationally first and foremost over other commercial products that present images of China’s communist-capitalist regime. Unlike China’s expanding capabilities in space, which are seen by the world as a threat, the country’s fictional extraterrestrial developments pose no real-life risk. But none of this seems like science-fiction any more. It is impossible to forget that in January 2021, the UK’s Brexit transition period ended, culminating in exiting the EU after years of negotiations between London and Brussels. The effects of the country’s divorce from the Union have been felt everywhere, in economic, socio-political and scientific terms. Under the Brexit arrangements, the UK no longer participates in European satellite navigation systems, such as Galileo or EGNOS.

Over time, Cao Fei’s UK audience might become more comfortable with the notion of China as a global technological leader offering its customers a wide range of products, services and technologies. And this, in turn, might cultivate an interest either in the blueprints of the mythical Chinese devices floating through the Milky Way, or an awareness of the significance of memory and the ways in which the past can come to haunt the present: images are, in effect, the opium of the West.

I have one last question: who is the winner? ♦

All images courtesy artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers © Cao Fei

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, ran from 25 June – 26 September 2021.

Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo is an artist and curator, currently completing his PhD at the École nationale supérieure de la photographie (ENSP), Arles. After one year at the National School of the Arts (NSA), Johannesburg, he graduated in Photography in Chile and completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, Nice, in 2014. He has curated exhibitions including Mapuche at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, and Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation at the Rencontres d’Arles, which has been on tour for four years under his permanent supervision. Valenzuela Escobedo is a guest tutor at international art schools and institutions, most recently at the Institut d’études supérieures des arts and Parsons, Paris, International Summer School of Photography, Latvia, and Atelier NOUA, Bodø. He is co-founder of Double Dummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography.

Images:

1>4-Cao Fei, Nova, 2019.

5>7-Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018.

8-Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006.

9-Cao Fei, Cosplayers, 2004.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass
Skinnerboox

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter
Autograph


Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road
Overlapse

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara
Aperture

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido
Steidl

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral
MACK

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦


Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

Poulomi Basu

Centralia

Essay by Emilia Terracciano

Fields smoulder at night. Through a forest clearing a teenage girl walks with her rifle. Half dressed bodies lie by an upturned truck surrounded by mobile cameras. A spray-painted man poses in the guise of a metallic Gandhi at a party, perhaps in a village. Men and women gather comically for a selfie on a raised patch of land, a tiny drone hovers above them. Forests blaze. In her latest photo-documentary Centralia, Poulomi Basu presents a deranged journey that leaves one giddy, slightly sick. Often shot at night, in pitch darkness, Basu uses bright colours, high shutter speeds, low aperture and shallow depth of field, creating a centrifugal, film-like atmosphere.

Centralia takes its name from a near-ghost mining town in Pennsylvania, US. Bought up by colonial agents from native American tribes in 1749, the mineral-rich borough became a thriving mining hub up until the world war years and global depression. Declared uninhabitable in the aftermath of a subterranean fire and the spread of toxic methane gases in the 1960s, Centralia’s residents were forcibly evicted by ‘eminent domain’ in 1992. Virtually a non-place – Postal Services suspended its zip code in 2002 – the creepy municipality is mined today by horror film crews.

Basu dislocates space-time expectations, connecting the shrinkage of mining in Centralia to the expansion of these extractive activities in the global south: central and eastern India. For Basu, the collapse of this little-known US town – with its hellish sinkholes, toxic vapours, rubble homes and melting asphalt – could prefigure the destruction of the mineral-rich areas of India. Seemingly removed from the economic and political realities of Centralia, these regions are the focus of Basu’s hallucinatory reflection – one that ponders the process of corporate mining and the violence that accompanies the extraction of minerals from the soil. ‘Centralia,’ Basu writes, ‘is the future.’ Economic booms and busts of the global economy may drive Centralia but the subject of the project is the protracted war waged by the Indian military-corporate complex against tribal communities (Adivasi) over lands and natural resources. Basu exposes the violence that accompanies bipolar development narratives in India: between those who endorse the project of corporate industrialisation and those who oppose it.

Murky and complex, the portrayal of the Maoist insurgent group People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) divides academics, critics and artists in India. Outdated authoritarian ideologies and rigid hierarchies certainly structure the guerrilla group, whose commitment to a ‘protracted people’s war’ against the state and the enclosure of the commons has caused an escalation of violence against civilians. PLGA’s mimetic warfare strategies, following the Maoist dictum that the guerrilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea, formidably pits innocent civilians against the paramilitary. The latter retaliates and destroys villages, performs extra-juridical killings, torture, rapes and arrests. Bodies are dressed up in military fatigues: identities become blurred on both sides of the divide. ‘Even if you cover this honestly, there are so many things you don’t know. The Maoists won’t tell you about them, the police always lie. The villagers don’t tell you anything. So how well can you really cover this?’ writes a local journalist interviewed by Basu.

Basu elevates obfuscation to a formal strategy, an approach that enacts a deliberate breakdown of ordinary vision and of knowledge bound to storytelling. Here, the possibility for visibility and transparency, myths that are fundamental to political and legal Euro-American discourses (and documentary photographic processes), are repeatedly questioned. Basu performs the theatrics of forensic documentary tropes on crime scenes but also inserts clues that appear to have been meddled with for and before the camera. Here the bloody, severed head of a baby goat, there the ghostly remains of a camp.

Centralia withholds the possibility for lyricism when figuring the PLGA’s armed resistance. In so doing, she does not abdicate critical questioning about insurgents’ political intentions, and the horrific consequences of their revolutionary politics for civilians. Moving through gorgeous forests, Basu resists the conventions of pastoral framing. Nature is militarised, trees offer makeshift shelters to humans and their weapons: rifles rest against trees before pujas (acts of worship) in eerie surroundings. Basu dislikes the term ‘embedded’ to describe her personal engagement with the guerrilla groups over the years. She prefers the term ‘immersed’. For sure, Basu has enjoyed the protection of Maoist units in gaining privileged access to inaccessible conflict zones but refrains from identifying with the insurgents. Intimacy and proximity are not available to her and she remains a stranger amongst these unlikely, camouflaged comrades. Such distance can be gleaned in the way she includes yellowing, gimmicky images that appear static and calmly classical in their staging. Basu, who has devoted her career to documenting the resilience of women (To Conquer Her Land, A Ritual of Exile and Isis Mothers), does share with us the militancy of PLGA’s women. She includes pixelated mugshots of deceased militant female martyrs as well as portraits of women in uniforms bearing old rifles. Such an approach suggests empathy for a way of life that resonates with Italian-American feminist Silvia Federici’s understanding of ‘a joyful militancy.’ This account of female resistance can resonate with more historically iconic examples: think of Vietnam or the Sandinista guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua. Women did play significant roles in these guerrilla fights, operating in jungles against powerful imperialist powers; social revolution was a genuine possibility and armed conflict no mere defensive strategy. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which Basu may identify with her characters. A strong sense of sympathy transpires from her shots but only a brittle heroism can be sensed. Male and female comrades appear fragmented in the fight, perhaps isolated. Moreover, it is the men who handle whatever primitive technology is available, for example, a radio. Basu limits camaraderie and its idealisation to one shot of a man and his dog.

Open-ended, Centralia offers a nightmare account of an ongoing war. Basu ultimately offers no release from this nightmare and opens up her lenses to the shelter of the night sky.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Poulomi Basu


Emilia Terracciano is an academic and writer based in London and Oxford. She is a postdoctoral Leverhulme Fellow at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, where she teaches the course Globalisation, Photography and the Documentary Turn. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the Global South. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India was published by I.B. Tauris in 2017. Terracciano also writes for The Caravan, Modern Painters and Frieze.