A colonial-era interrogation chamber from Cao Fei’s film Prison Architect has been loosely reconstructed as part of the artist’s ongoing exhibition. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
By Things come in twos in Cao Fei’s exhibition, “A Hollow in a World Too Full”, which opened at Tai Kwun Contemporary on Sept 8. The centerpiece — a film installation named Prison Architect — plays every hour, on the hour, simultaneously on two screens facing each other. The audience sits in between, on sleek, gentrified adaptations of the prison cell-style bunk bed.
Two performers riding a pair of swings crisscross each other, striking an assortment of drums and cymbals with their feet, rhythmically, bringing to mind the clangor punctuating Chinese opera performances. On another floor of the three-tier art gallery, two video installations, La Town and i, Mirror, created by China Tracy — Cao’s alter ego from Second Life, a now-defunct online platform — play on a loop.
Cao Fei’s solo show in Tai Kwun features a film, videos, installations and performance. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
A booklet containing idiosyncratic prison design ideas and stills from Prison Architect. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
Prison Architect too is about two lives that may not be all that different from one another although at the outset they seem to inhabit different realities. A woman architect imagines being tasked with designing a prison. Her counterpart, a man from an unspecified past, jailed apparently for writing contentious poems, lives in a cell in the erstwhile Victoria Prison — the very same premises that have since been revitalized into Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts where the exhibition venue is located. She — a career woman living on her own, surrounded by soulless towers of concrete in Hong Kong — is probably as isolated as he is. In fact, he could be a projection of her repressed and vulnerable side.
Disc-shaped robot cleaners are set in motion on an empty, spotless, futuristic landscape. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
Viewers of Prison Architect sit on gentrified adaptations of prison cell-style bunk beds. (ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY)
The most remarkable, tongue-in-cheek, pairing of these similar-but-different elements is displayed in a dark chamber with a damp floor and plaster peeling off the wall — a reconstruction of an interrogation room in Prison Architect. Here a tilted portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth I on the wall shares space with an idol of the raging, red-faced Guan Yu, the mighty general from 3rd-century BC, still worshipped for his military prowess and moral fortitude. It’s almost like a face-off between a British monarch from colonial-era Hong Kong and a war hero from ancient Chinese history, who has since been apotheosized and turned into a deity presiding over the old-world values of honor and righteousness.
In between them, on a table, are papers containing the records of and a book of poems by a prisoner who may or may not have been.
If you go
A Hollow in a World Too Full
Artist: Cao Fei
Presented by UCCA, Beijing
Curated by Philip Tinari
Venue: Tai Kwun Contemporary, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, 10 Hollywood Road, Central
Dates: Through Dec 9
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