Cao Fei unveils her BMW Art Car

Photo: Cao Fei experiencing drift in a BMW M4 GTS for the first time on the race track in Zurich

Photo: Cao Fei experiencing drift in a BMW M4 GTS for the first time on the race track in Zurich

Earlier this year, Chinese artist Cao Fei unveiled her design for the 18th BMW Art Car, programmed with the tools of cutting-edge AR technology. Looking back at Cao' s history, collaborations with brands and manufacturing sites have always contributed to her growth as an artist. Here, Cao Fei shares her feelings on the significance of brands' support of art projects, and observations of the transformations happening in China’s factories that reverberate throughout the world.

For your BMW Art Car project, what was the brand’s contribution?

I may have been the most demanding artist in the history of the BMW Art Car project. I went deep into the factories to observe and research. I asked to visit BMW Brilliance’s Shenyang factory and BMW’s Munich factory. The person in charge of the project, BMW Group’s Director of Cultural Engagement, Thomas Girst, knew that my work is tied to new technology, and introduced me to augmented reality (AR) through Google’s Cultural Institute, which in the end proved pivotal. The fact that BMW tries to understand each artist’s needs and cater to him or her is unique; it is born out of their professionalism towards art.

This wasn’t the first time you worked in a factory. For Whose Utopia(2006), which was commissioned by Siemens, you spent nearly six months doing fieldwork in the Foshan Osram light factory. Do you have a special love for factories?

I believe my infatuation with factories began with Siemens; it probably helps that I used to live in the Pearl River Delta area, the world’s factory. When I visited the Siemens factory, it was half-automated; there were still large numbers of workers on the lines. Ten years later, the factory has become something entirely different—an automated production line devoid of human intervention. The Siemens factory produced different brands for export. The BMW Brilliance factory, on the other hand, is for “Made in China, Sold to China.” Through this project, I could see the shift in China’s position from a service provider to a front-line consumer.

It’s relatively rare to turn a brand collaboration into an important piece in one’s growth as an artist, but you’ve expressed a certain preference for brand collaborations. Has the artist-brand collaboration process changed between these two projects?

Many brands now have independent cultural departments or foundations that manage artist collaborations. The team that manages the BMW Art Car understands the place of art in the world today. Girst could offer targeted assistance because he holds a doctorate in art history. In these crossover projects, the artist’s job is more than to create a visual piece or simply seek beauty—it’s not like a brand hiring an ad agency. Collaborations between brands and artists have improved: they do not try to cover up problems, but rather give artists space to ask questions. Artists’ questions are also not necessarily focused on the brands themselves, but look at the age that we live in. And brands’ tolerance for the artistic process and ability to provide constructive comments in fact helps brands upgrade their own competitiveness.

Interview by Violet for LEAP
Translated by Frank Qian