January 13, 2020 - National Gallery Singapore - Cao Fei: Fú Chá
January 13, 2020

National Gallery Singapore

Cao Fei, Fú Chá.

Cao Fei
Fú Chá
Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission
January 17, 2020

National Gallery Singapore
1 St. Andrew's Rd
Singapore 178957
Hours: Monday–Sunday 10am–7pm,
Friday–Saturday 10am–10pm

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For the fourth Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission at National Gallery Singapore, Cao Fei has conceived a mysterious scenario: a ship sits seemingly abandoned amidst the gleaming landmarks of Singapore’s Civic District, with the ocean, which would normally surround the vessel, now filling its interior. The work’s title refers to a Chinese fable about a raft that traverses both the Milky Way and the sea, suggesting distant journeys in uncharted waters. The ship’s continual movement and the splashing waves respond to the feng shui of this particular site. 

Cao Fei was born and raised in Guangzhou in southern China, a historic centre of foreign trade and commerce and integral to maritime exchange networks since the Qin Dynasty. A port city navigable to the South China Sea, Guangzhou became the political and cultural heart of the Pearl River Delta region and a gateway to global trade following its designation as a special economic zone in the mid-1980s. Throughout its existence, the city has been marked by and oriented toward the south. The term Nanyang, literally “the southern seas,” is a sinocentric descriptor for geographical Southeast Asia as a locale for historical waves of migration from China, and has since come to refer to syncretic art styles and cultural movements characteristic of this region during the first half of the 20th century.

Cao’s family has personal connections to Nanyang, with ancestors and relatives emigrating there as workers or merchants, but also participating in acts of political change centred around different forms of nationalism. The ship, as the central vehicle of passage from port to port and country to country, becomes for the artist a critical symbol of historical and contemporary flows of peoples and cultures which have transformed this region. Its design, colours and motifs—including the pair of stylised eyes that provide guidance and protection—identify it as a local vessel. Causes of migration and categories of migrants have evolved over time, and the relationships these traders, labourers and sojourners had with both their countries of origin and their destination have likewise undergone complex change. However, Fú Chá seems to set these aside for the moment, focusing instead on the extraordinary process of travel, and the accompanying sense of disorientation and possibility it creates.

Singapore, and its identity as a port city shaped by numerous diasporic and migrant communities, forms a bracket for this journey, with Guangzhou. Fú Chá is sited on the roof of the Gallery, and located near the Singapore River, the historical connection to the entrepôt that brought economic activity and rapid development to the city. The site also faces Marina Bay, an area gradually reclaimed from the sea since the early 1970s, which has today become an elaborate monument to commerce and entertainment. In this context, the work might also be seen as a nod to theme parks and their synthetic pleasures, drawing upon the idea of Singapore as a construct where any variety of experiences can be easily created and acquired. The waves that spill out from the ship suggest the turbulence of risk and opportunity, but the structure’s swaying movement is also reminiscent of an amusement park ride. As such, the pliant, mutable element of water contained within appears to be caught up in an arduous cycle of expense and replenishment. In its expression of the shifting relationship between the ship and the sea, and pragmatism and play, Fú Chá continues Cao’s exploration of the surreal forms of alienation within today’s rapidly globalising world.

Cao Fei (b. 1978, China) is one of China’s foremost contemporary artists. Her practice uses moving image, photography, installation and performance to explore the daily lives of people navigating accelerated changes in social, political and technological landscapes. Cao’s work has been presented at major exhibitions around the world, and in solo exhibitions at UCCA, Beijing; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and MoMA PS1, New York.

Curated by Sam I-shan and Cheng Jia Yun

National Gallery Singapore
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Fú Chá
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