See how artists are turning to sci-fi and fiction to make sense of the human experience

In "Nova" (2019) Cao Fei presents two films that explore the concept of time, space and the fictions of history and geopolitics

Can science fiction teach us about life on earth? Equally, how can art engage with these imaginary worlds to help us navigate what it means to be human now and in the future? This formed the overall theme to Gallery Weekend Berlin (April 28 to 30), and we headed out to the German city to see the discourse among the international artists showing in this annual event.

Among the 50-plus participating galleries a few exhibitions stood out, namely ‘Duotopia’ by the Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei’s at Sprüth Magers, and ‘Human Is’ at Schinkel Pavillon. This latter group show (until 21 July 2023) is a curious group exhibition that proposes a series of alternative futures, questioning the reality of being human, its weaknesses, fears and limitations. Through a series of of historical artefacts and contemporary artwork, it suggests distinctions between dystopia and reality are collapsing due to technological and ecological upheavals.

The exhibition catalogue speaks of the work of the science fiction writer Ursula K. le Guin, who sees fiction as a means to reinvent the possibilities of the human experience beyond the linear narrative of progress. ‘Human Is’ argues through these imagined stories, we can “trigger creative processes and a new ethics of relationality, which may no longer be truly human.”

Meanwhile Cao Fei’s ‘Duotopia’ offers a more expansive and constructive narrative. The Chinese multimedia artist’s work investigates what it means to be human within our rapidly changing twenty-first-century landscape, with work that is alive, constantly evolving to be in conversation with our time.

In Berlin she has transformed Sprüth Magers into a visually striking and highly thought-provoking series of multi-media exhibits that take the viewer on a journey into many different worlds here and in the imagination. Some look at the connective and creative possibilities of the metaverse in connection to life on earth with the documentary-style ‘Meta-mentary’ (2022), for instance, asking ordinary people to share their hopes and fears about the technological future.

Cao’s first avatar, China Tracy, appears in ‘RMB City’ (2007-11) and she introduces her latest in ‘Oz’ (2022) as a joyful androgynous water-related character with biopic tentacles. The tone is much more political in “MatryoshkaVerse” (2022) as the artist reflects on the rapid changes brought about by global developments in China. Meanwhile, in “Nova” (2019), two films are told in a non-linear narrative to explore the concept of time, space and the fiction of history and geopolitics.

Pivotal is a video sharing the exhibition name, ‘Duotopia’, where Cao’s architectural metaverse gives nebulous concepts a visual reality. The ring-like construction floats and spins with substructures shaped like massive aquatic features that appear to bridge ocean air as the viewer is encouraged to watch this imagined world lying down for a highly immersive experience.

The ‘duo’ in the exhibition title refers to the Mandarin word meaning ‘many’, suggesting a layering of possibilities for future environments and the human experience. And there is a lot to take in, with much of our day in Berlin spent observing Cao Fei’s vast and fascinating body of work with the avatars and metaverses strangely more optimistic and grounded in reality than you’d expect.

If art is a tool to make sense of the world, then these exhibitions help create expansive narratives to help guide us, then  into the future.

Photography: Top, Cao Fei’s ‘Nova’ (2019) explore the concept of time, space and the fictions of history and geopolitics, and in “Oz” (2022) introduces the artist’s newly imagined avatar as an androgynous and water-related character with biopic tentacles. All images copyright Spinach Branding.

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Cao Fei’s “Duotopia” at Sprüth Magers
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