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Prisons with No Walls: Cao Fei Discusses "Prison Architect"

The Chinese multimedia artist discusses her 2018 film, which examines Hong Kong's colonial history through questions of captivity.
Joseph Constable
Cao Fei's Prison Architect (2018) is now showing on MUBI in collaboration with Serpentine Cinema.
Above: Cao Fei, Prison Architect, 2018. Single channel HD video, 2.39:1, color with stereo sound. 58min 48sec. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Commissioned by Tai Kwun Contemporary.
NOTEBOOK: Prison Architect is a film rooted in both the past and the present, centered upon the histories of the Victoria Prison, the earliest penal structure built in Hong Kong under British rule. Could you talk about how this film came about and your process of researching this charged site?
CAO FEI: The site of Tai Kwun Contemporary was previously Victoria Prison of Hong Kong, dating back to some 170 years ago. Once named Central Prison, it was the first ever prison since Hong Kong was established as a British colony. It is now officially declared a site of cultural heritage. After 10 years of preservation and re-development, Tai Kwun opened to the public in 2018. In 2015, I received the invitation from Tobias Berger, the director of Tai Kwun Contemporary whilst it was still under construction, for a new commission and solo exhibition. I then started my research into the history of Victoria Prison, especially the period before the handover of Hong Kong. I found that it was a pivotal site for Hong Kong and its colonial history, marking the turn of discipline and punishment there.
Furthermore, in the process of my research, Chinese writer Hu Fang's The Comfort of Captivity introduced to me a new understanding of imprisonment: instead of viewing captivity in a conventional and immediate manner, we can put it in a larger context and treat captivity, punishment and discipline in a non-antagonistic way. How do we understand captivity today, especially those prisons with no walls? The present-day Tai Kwun, a historical prison turned cultural institution, is just another form of discipline for society as whole. In the film, I created a scenario in which a dialogue between a prison architect and a prisoner could happen across spacetime. Through the dialogue, an analysis of space, history and mind was initiated. It was necessary for me to make the work at the historical prison site. With my film, I was also paying homage to the Hong Kong culture which shaped my younger years (especially the Hong Kong gangster films that dominated the market of Chinese-language cinema in the 1990s). It was also a way to converse with the ghosts haunting the prison.
Above: Cao Fei, Prison Architect, 2018. Single channel HD video, 2.39:1, color with stereo sound. 58min 48sec. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Commissioned by Tai Kwun Contemporary.
NOTEBOOK: The relationship to the past, present and future is something that you often draw upon in your work, and connects to your most recent research project, HX, which is at the center of the solo exhibition, Blueprints, at the Serpentine Galleries in London. There seems to be a connection between the experience of temporality within the narrative of Prison Architect and in your latest film produced as part of the HX project, Nova: a retro-sci-fi story whose starting point is the technological transformation of Beijing’s Jiuxianqiao (Hong Xia) district. In both of these films, it is the past that comes to inform, shape, and even haunt the present. Could you talk more about the significance of haunting in your work, and the ways in which time is expressed in both of these films?
CAO: I feel like it is sometimes hard for me to reach the level of the signified within my films. They are mostly open, viscous, and ambivalent, sometimes romantic, sometimes rational. They are tender but steadfast, resolute but lingering. Both my new film Nova and older work Prison Architect point to a multitude of directions, spacetimes and agendas. I would rather view my practice as traveling in the shadows of the past, the present and the future, and making connections among them, endowing myself with greater narrative latitudes. When addressing hugely complex historical issues, linear and realistic ways of making art can hardly penetrate the surface. I have to tear them down, chew them, ruminate and reconstruct, and only then can I give shape to our deepest concerns facing the fragmentation of history, the uncertainty of the present and the ambiguity of the future. There are also implications from the fourth dimension, such as dreams and souls.
Above: Cao Fei, Prison Architect, 2018. Single channel HD video, 2.39:1, color with stereo sound. 58min 48sec. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers. Commissioned by Tai Kwun Contemporary.
NOTEBOOK: Prison Architect was originally due to be screened in London as part of a Serpentine Cinema program to accompany the exhibition, Blueprints. Due to the impact of COVID-19, this screening unfortunately had to be cancelled, so we are excited to collaborate with MUBI on this special showing of the work, launching during the final week of the exhibition in London.
Central to the film are the concepts of freedom and containment, whether that is the physical enclosure exemplified by the prison, or a more psychological sense of entrapment. The experience of lockdown over the past months has, at times, stimulated similar feelings, and I am interested to know how you think this pandemic has altered our relationship with our built environments and how this might tie in with some of the questions that Blueprints is asking.
CAO: The exhibition Blueprints was presented during this strange time, a situation somewhat similar to a ‘quantum entanglement’. I therefore never complained about the exhibition’s closure, because this was exactly part of its resonance with what was happening at the time. Blueprints usually work as guidelines; they give directions. It is because of the pandemic that Blueprints obtained its double signification in and beyond the exhibition space.
I recently read a comment from a visitor to the exhibition that I think speaks to what you are asking: "I passed by the Serpentine Gallery this morning, seeing the exhibition poster standing solitarily in Hyde Park. The scene was exactly like the apocalyptic situations in her work, with people living in ruin-like places and cities that have shifted outside their usual order. Maybe even the artist herself didn't expect that her work came so close to real life during the pandemic."

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