Time Machines, Robot Ballets
Laura Owens and Cao Fei at the Vienna Secession

In a two-person show, the Vienna Secession presents two artists whose works occupy an entire floor each in Deutsche Bank’s main Frankfurt officeLaura Owens and Cao Fei. Since the late 1990s, Owens, one of the most influential artists on the American scene, has been putting contemporary art’s possibilities to the test. She combines virtuosic skill with conceptual thought and makes use of a wide variety of techniques, media, and references. While Owens’s early work gave rise to a playful world of child-like fantasy that nonetheless addressed formal questions and painterly composition, her recent works are more conceptual, severe, and pop.

Owens has been working with motifs from old newspapers for several years. Recently, and entirely by accident, she happened upon a set of old printing plates that had long served as roofing material beneath the tiles of her house in Echo Park. The plates turned out to be issues of the Los Angeles Times from 1942, the year her house was built. The artist was fascinated by the juxtaposition of news reports, with world-political and local events from the months after Pearl Harbor appearing side by side. Owens decided to print and scan these newspapers, after which she reworked them in Photoshop, adding contemporary magazine and Internet ads as well as articles dating back to the 1890s. The resulting collaged newspaper pages were silkscreened onto canvas.  

In addition to this superimposition of various different layers of time, the visual layers are also difficult to pinpoint in terms of foreground and background, giving rise to an unstable pictorial space. Digital brushstrokes appear alongside real paint in oil, acrylic, and vinyl. The result is a kind of painterly time machine in which the viewer moves from piece to piece as though through the pages of a newspaper. Owens blurs the boundaries between image and text, seeing and reading, two and three-dimensional perception, and in the process, she creates a completely different experience of painting for her show at the Secession.

Cao Fei has long been considered one of China’s most important contemporary artists. Part of the first generation to grow up in post-Communist China, she works with film, performance, and installation. Cao Fei’s works describe the state of affairs in Chinese society affected by urbanization and rapid technological and social change: its fears, lost dreams, and fantasies; the strategies people employ to overcome or flee their reality.

For the exhibition, Cao Fei has created four new works that are shown together with five selected key works, including her Second Life experiment RMB City (2008–2011) and the video COSplayers (2004), in which Chinese teenagers take on the roles of their favorite computer game figures. Cao Fei’s temporary installation Splendid River (2015) can be seen on the façade of the Secession: four Chinese characters adorn the building, making it into a copy of a copy of the Viennese original in Cao Fei’s native city of Guangzhou, which is home to a real-estate firm. Replicas such as these are a widespread phenomenon in China, where popular brand products, icons of Western architecture, and even entire villages, for instance the Austrian town of Hallstatt, are copied.

Probably the most spectacular work in the exhibition is the installation Rumba (2015), in which automatized performances take place according to an established schedule: household robots perform a kind of choreography of happenstance. Activated by an invisible signal, four cleaning robots start vacuuming a wooden stage, turning around in circles. They seem to be dancing with joy over the advantages this new automatization has brought to the newly rich and the middle class. The installation picks up on her recent film La Town, which is on view at the current Venice Biennial. In this ambitious stop motion film miniature figures wander through a mythical post-apocalyptic metropolis. But it also refers to Haze and Fog (2013), a completely new type of zombie film that can be seen in Vienna and about which the artist spoke at length in her interview for ArtMag. Set in the service society of today’s Beijing, its dark, poetic images speak of a loss of tradition, environmental pollution, and social disintegration. While the film depicts the underpaid cleaning ladies and messengers as modern slaves and the undead, their role has now been taken over by automats resembling happy insects. Cao Fei’s work articulates a critique that is both subtle and concise—not merely concerning the state of affairs in China today, but the entire global development.


Splendid River

7/2 – 8/30/2015
Secession, Vienna