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Nine years ago, when Cao Fei first featured in the pages of Wallpaper*, she was already at the forefront of technology, but relatively unknown among an audience that wasn’t familiar with the Chinese art scene. Commissioned by our then guest editor, Ole Scheeren, to share her impressions of Beijing, Cao riffed on her RMB City project (2008-11) – a fictional Chinese city constructed in the online virtual world Second Life, an experiment in avant-garde urban planning – to create a dynamic, dreamlike collage of architecture and landscape, including four of Scheeren’s designs. As the architect told us at the time, ‘Cao Fei has long intrigued me with her depiction of the new China through scenes of fantastic perpetual construction and a virtual world in which everything seems possible.’
Fast forward to today, Cao is one of the most groundbreaking creatives of our time, newly lauded with the Deutsche Börse Foundation Photography Prize and in the midst of a global tour of sorts: following acclaimed solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, Serpentine Galleries and UCCA Beijing, she is about to show in Los Angeles and Rome. Her ability to articulate the promises and pitfalls of technology remains uncanny, though her virtual worlds have since been overtaken in fame by epic video installations.
So I am honoured that she is headlining this Art Special with a 20-page portfolio of stills and exclusive behind-the-scenes photography from her recent works Nova (2019) and Asia One (2018); respectively, the tale of a scientist who accidentally sends his son into a virtual limbo, and a disquieting vision of an industrial facility of the near future in which robots have replaced human workers. Beyond their resonances with the present moment, the films have an alluring beauty that gives an odd but welcome glimmer of hope. As our Singapore editor Daven Wu writes in his profile of the artist, ‘while Cao’s work is streaked with the constant theme of gloomy dystopia, it is also firmly balanced by a sense of impermanence – in the positive sense that, whatever else may be troubling us, it won’t last’. In the same sense, her limited-edition cover for the issue, which reflects on a post-Covid world, also offers a subtle suggestion that better days lie ahead.
Cao Fei’s section is one of five art stories in the issue. We also call on collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, an early, enthusiastic and enduring supporter of Black and women artists; interview Petrit Halilaj ahead of a major installation at Tate St Ives that explores his personal experiences of the Kosovo War; partner with photographer Bettina von Zwehl on a fashion and art collaboration that champions more inclusive definitions of beauty; and serve up Ibrahim Mahama’s jollof rice for our Artist’s Palate series. Elsewhere, we shine the spotlight on South African fashion designer Rich Mnisi’s first solo exhibition of furniture, visit a Brussels gallery created by Olivier Dwek for a leading collector of midcentury design, and head to Gstaad to take a 3D-printed portable toilet for a spin.
Equally unmissable are our inaugural Smart Space Awards, celebrating the perfect union of domestic technology and product design. The winning products, ranging from a water bottle that can neutralise the majority of water-borne germs to a laptop that is truly modular and easily upgradeable, reassure us that whatever the future holds – even if it turns out the way Cao Fei imagines it – considered, ingenious, life-enhancing design will be there to guide us.
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