Cao Fei tells the story of the 18th BMW Art Car

Cao Fei is the first ever Chinese artist to be commissioned to design a BMW Art Car – as well as the youngest. She is also an established new-media artist with a wealth of experience designing and constructing virtual worlds. But isn’t a 585-hp racing car a rather unusual subject for a work of media art? BMW Magazine follows Cao at work on the project, accompanying her on visits to BMW workshops and during film shoots in Peking.

Matthias Ziegler
Xifan Yang

“When I was a child, the only place I’d ever seen a car was on TV,” says Cao Fei. She grew up in Guangzhou on China’s Pearl River Delta in the 1980s, at a time when a wave of new investment was transforming the region. Factory construction picked up pace and almost overnight the potholed streets were filled with heavily laden trucks headed for the city’s docks. Though the locals, like Cao’s parents, still rode bicycles just as they had always done, Cao’s father sometimes took her to the go-kart track at the city’s amusement park. Cao was in primary school at the time, but she was already dreaming about what it would be like to sit in a real car one day. Cao Fei’s overriding preoccupation with the future can still be seen in her work today.

It is now November 2016 and Cao, aged 38 and already an internationally acclaimed artist, is visiting Munich. Here at the BMW Group Classic workshop, the BMW team has arranged a viewing of a brand-new M6 GT3, which in Cao’s hands will be transformed into the BMW Art Car. The artist, dressed in an overcoat and long, multicoloured scarf, prowls around the car, taking photographs on her smartphone and from time to time running her hand over the shiny black carbon fibre surface of the vehicle. There is a strong smell of new paint and rubber.

The 18th Art Car breaks new ground, not only for the Chinese artist but also for BMW. Unlike previous artists – such as Andy Warhol, who completed his deft brushwork in a mere 28 minutes, Jeff Koons, who printed his vibrant and colourful Art Car graphics on vinyl, or Jenny Holzer, who adorned her car with the eye-catching slogan “Protect me from what I want” – Cao works exclusively in the realm of new media art. She shoots videos and creates virtual universes at the computer. Her iconic images capture the breathtaking speed of the transformation currently taking place in China and mirror the everyday reality of our digitalised, globalised world. She is the youngest artist ever to design a BMW Art Car, which can now look back on a 40-year history. “For me, the greatest challenge with this project is how to articulate my ideas and transform the vehicle both visually and conceptually,” she muses.

Cao Fei crafts her art with the perfectionism of an engineer. To obtain the best possible visual match between the 3D model and the real-life car, she and virtual reality experts from her team tested the scannability of different types of paint finish using 3D software.

Cao Fei crafts her art with the perfectionism of an engineer. To obtain the best possible visual match between the 3D model and the real-life car, she and virtual reality experts from her team tested the scannability of different types of paint finish using 3D software.

Race-ready work of art

Over recent months, Cao has been a regular visitor at BMW in Munich. It has been quite some time since she first flew in from Peking to meet with BMW’s Design Chief and look round the plant. Since then she has been in regular contact with the materials engineers and technicians. Today she is getting her first look at the actual vehicle on which she will be working. She spends a long time poring over the M6’s black carbon fibre bodywork, before eventually asking the team whether there is any way to get a more polished effect.

Jan van Kolfschoten, Manager Special Projects at BMW Motorsport, shows Cao some paint samples in matte-black, dark blue-black and black-brown. On no account must the paintwork add much extra weight, though, for it is imperative that the Art Car remain competitive when it takes part in the 2017 Macao Grand Prix. It must also pass Dr Wang’s 3D “scannability” test. Nan Wang, an augmented reality and virtual reality expert at the University of Lausanne, has made the journey from Switzerland today to check out the best options for 3D-scanning the M6. Cao plans to weave the resulting computer model into her own digitally created virtual tableau.

When the Art Car is unveiled, the idea is that showgoers will be able to experience it with the help of an augmented reality app. “Cao Fei is doing something no artist has ever attempted before,” says Thomas Girst, BMW’s Head of Cultural Engagement. Girst has been involved in the project from the start, when a jury comprising Guggenheim Museum Director Richard Armstrong, Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon and Beatrix Ruf, Head of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, chose Cao Fei and US conceptual artist John Baldessari to design the latest Art Cars. Baldessari, 85, has been a leading figure in the art world for the past four decades, while Cao’s international celebrity is only just beginning. 2016 brought a major breakthrough for her, with exhibitions in Paris and Dubai and a major retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York. The New York Times noted that Cao is “often described … as the embodiment of the new China.” She was also recently named Best Artist in the prestigious Chinese Contemporary Art Awards.

An Art Car for the digital 21st century

Now Dr Wang and Cao Fei are poring intently over the 3D test results on their tablet. The verdict is clear: they need to go with a matte-black clear coat. In a few days’ time, Jan van Kolfschoten will send the revised paint samples to Cao in Peking. After final consultations, the M6 will then be entrusted to the capable hands of Walter Maurer, the well-known painter and artist who has already put the finishing touches to a number of earlier Art Cars.

A few days later, Cao is back in her studio in Peking. It is located in a former industrial zone in the northeast of the city, where a vast sprawl of state-owned factories once turned out electrical appliances and machinery. The area seems far removed from the glittering shopping malls and high-rise developments just a few blocks away. Here it is easy to imagine yourself back in the China of the eighties. Tuk-tuks ply the streets and icy winds kick up a dust storm as elderly women in thickly padded cotton jackets hang out their washing at the roadside. In 2015, Cao set up her studio here in a former Mao-era workers’ cinema. Big characters on the roof of the two-story building, which is fronted by a white-tiled façade, spell out the name “Red Cloud Cinema”. Inside, the artist has left almost everything just as it was in the cinema’s heyday: the rusting chandeliers, the classic stucco decorations, the walls painted green and pink, the Maoist slogans. It is this close juxtaposition of the old and the new China that provides Cao with such a fertile source of inspiration for her work.

Visiting the BMW Group Classic workshop, the artist discusses in great detail the M6’s carbon fibre bodywork with the materials engineers and technical experts.

The 18th BMW Art Car comprises three components: a video in which the spiritual journey of a time traveller is traced through the various epochs of China’s long and storied history all the way to the country’s dynamic present-day reality, an augmented reality app through which the light particles surrounding the car are made visible, and the BMW M6 GT3.

The 18th BMW Art Car comprises three components: a video in which the spiritual journey of a time traveller is traced through the various epochs of China’s long and storied history all the way to the country’s dynamic present-day reality, an augmented reality app through which the light particles surrounding the car are made visible, and the BMW M6 GT3.

Japanese animated films, Taiwanese soap operas, European art house cinema

Even in her childhood, Cao recalls, she was always fascinated by the medium of film. In those days, as well as the standard fare of propaganda films from socialist sister states such as Cuba and Romania, the cinemas were also starting to screen their first western productions. Hong Kong-produced pirate copies of Hollywood movies began to flood the People’s Republic. Cao quickly developed a liking for nouvelle vague and science fiction. “For a while I devoured anything that was showing: Japanese animated films, Taiwanese soap operas, European art house cinema – you name it.” Cao’s father was a sculptor and art teacher in Guangzhou, and while still at school she started experimenting with his video camera. “I came into contact with art at a very early age,” says Cao, who went on to study at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. At just 21, she began to make a name for herself in the international art world when her early work Imbalance 257, a fast-and-furious five-minute video about the everyday lives of a group of young art students, was discovered by Hou Hanru, artistic director at the MAXXI museum in Rome.

Combining the razor-sharp eye of a documentary filmmaker and the imagination of a science fiction director, Cao went on to produce works that can be seen as parables about life in modern China and in a globalised world. In Whose Utopia? (2006) she depicted the mundane day-to-day reality of factory workers’ lives in Dongguan, contrasting them with their secret personal fantasies. In RMB City (2007), she created a Chinese megacity on the virtual reality platform Second Life. Few other artists of her generation have gone further in exploring the possibilities of new media art. Cao’s films are full of black humour, but also have depth and sensibility. For her latest work, Strangers (2015), shown in spring 2016 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, she filmed people checking out strangers’ lives via webcam but never engaging in actual communication. Instead, the protagonists spend hours simply watching one another do things like brush their teeth, cook meals or play with their dog. “I’m no different myself,” she freely admits. “I spend half my day on my smartphone. One moment maybe I’ll check out a cute dog video, then what a colleague had for dinner, then maybe a fantastic sunset. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my phone. And it’s the last thing I do before I go to sleep at night.”

How did you approach and engage with the topic of the automobile?

“It’s still somewhat uncharted territory for me,” she says. “So I’ve done a lot of background research and reading. And I’ve been to the BMW plant in Shenyang and talked to production line workers in Munich.”

“I visited a materials archive in New York, and in the summer I met up with racing driver Cyndie Allemann in Switzerland. All this helped me immerse myself in the world of mobility.” Cao’s studio, where she is now sitting on one of the old cinema seats, is spartanly furnished with just a long table, a couple of sets of shelves, some whiteboards, a wall projector and a small stove for brewing coffee. She does most of her creative work either on a laptop, outdoors or in the film studio. Her way of working is “incredibly focused and intense,” says BMW Group Head of Cultural Engagement Thomas Girst, who has visited her several times in Peking. Her approach could be described as that of a director, producer, scriptwriter and set designer rolled into one. She is assisted by four employees, all women: an architect, a computer specialist and two university graduates specialising in printing techniques and experimental art.

Cao has devoted a lot of her time to the Art Car project over the past 12 months. A table in the studio is stacked high with literature about materials and colours, as well as books about cars, among them Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographic collection The Cars. “The Art Car must still be capable of doing 300 km/h and winning races,” says Cao. “That means I can’t attach anything to the body or use it as a projection surface. Instead, I decided to approach things from a completely different angle.” Specifically, her approach involves “visualising” the concept of acceleration through the medium of a film whose action unfolds partly in the real world and partly in the virtual world. A mood board in the studio shows scenes from the films Mad Max and Back to the Future and the TV series The Walking Dead, as well as photos of industrial robots. The concepts of utopia and dystopia are closely intertwined in Cao’s work. “So many utopias have come and gone,” she says. Her perspective on mobility is holistic, looking at questions such as: “What can we do about all the resources we consume to build cars, about air pollution or the lack of space in cities?” But, she says, “I’m still hopeful. We’re seeing enormous changes on the development front. There are reasons to be optimistic.”

Images can trigger thought processes

The first episodes of the video were shot some time ago. They depict a monk leaving a monastery in the mountains, descending into the valley and making his way through a futuristic city. Once again we are confronted with the contrasting faces of modern China: paddy fields and fast-food restaurants, smoking factory chimneys and high-rise apartments amid green urban oases – all coexisting in close proximity. This afternoon, Cao and a thirty-member film crew are shooting in a green-screen studio on the outskirts of Peking. The monk is played by an actor, while for the dance scenes Cao has had a couple of professional dancers flown in from Taiwan. At the moment she finds herself working almost round the clock. Last night the team were rehearsing until midnight – yet were back in the studio again at six this morning. Cao believes that images can be an effective way of triggering thought processes. She saw this for herself at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015, where she presented her video installation La Town, a 42-minute stop-motion animation about a small town visited by some unspecified disaster. La Town was also shown at the 2015 Biennale in Venice. “In Davos it was a completely different type of forum,” says Cao. “Not the usual art audience, but economists and politicians who had never heard of me before. Yet despite that – or even because of it – I had some really fascinating exchanges that day. I think it’s naïve to think that art can change the world. But at least it can get people talking.” And she is hoping something similar will happen again very soon, when she unveils her BMW Art Car. In the final scene of the accompanying film, the monk will slip back into the virtual world, into the M6, which will then hurtle off like a matte-black arrow into an uncertain future.

On location in Peking: while working on the 3D model Cao Fei also shot a film, into which the virtual model of the Art Car was integrated. One of the actors can be seen on the left, in monk’s robes.