The Art World Works From Home: Artist Cao Fei Is Stuck in Singapore Watching Zombie Thrillers and Teaching Art Students Over Zoom

Here's how the artist is making her way through life in quarantine.

The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly does not stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they are working from home.

Like many artists, Cao Fei has found that her day-to-day life is unrecognizable from what it was just a few weeks ago. Her multimedia installations are sought-after the world over—with recent major shows at MoMA PS1, the Palais de Tokyo, and Tate Modern—but the Chinese artist’s current projects are on hold, including her recently opened solo presentation at London’s Serpentine Galleries. In fact, her life itself is on pause: since January, the Beijing-based artist and her family have been staying in Singapore, where she was unveiling an installation just before the outbreak grounded travelers the world over.

Read on to hear how she’s managing teaching from quarantine, keeping her kids busy, and what she’s looking forward to post-social isolation.


Where is your new “office”? 

My current office is the living room of my residence in Singapore. I was in town in January for the launch of my outdoor installation Fú Chá, a commission for the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden of the National Gallery Singapore. Since the coronavirus outbreak started in China shortly after the launch, me and my family have been forced to stay put in Singapore.

The artist’s current home “office.” Courtesy of Cao Fei.

What are you working on right now (and were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown)?

My solo exhibition “Cao Fei: Blueprints” at the Serpentine Galleries was suspended after opening just for two weeks. Many projects have been either suspended, canceled, or postponed. People are all in “wait-and-see” mode, waiting for this coronavirus pandemic to end.

How has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?

Lots of things are being moved online now. Almost everyone in the art world—established media outlets, art museums, all kinds of art-related accounts on Instagram—are having projects such as virtual exhibitions, online Q&As, livestream interviews, and Instagram takeovers. People are trying to use all sorts of methods to bring the offline online, and because of the growing appetite for that, I’ve also received an unprecedented amount of invitations to participate in these virtual events.

A view from home isolation. Courtesy of Cao Fei.

What are you reading, both online and off?

Recently, I’ve been giving online seminars to my graduate students at CAFA through Zoom; there are 20 to 30 students in my class. Since what I teach is “moving image,” naturally I would go back and rewatch old clips and works by numerous artists for class preparation, like Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, and Douglas Gordon. My memory suddenly becomes clear again and subsequently generates new understandings on these blurry pieces that were gradually fading away from me.

Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?

Acute Art has made something that’s worth checking out—its collaboration with KAWS offering a few AR sculptures that could be floating in your surroundings. Their project went online right before the epidemic started to mushroom all over the world. As people are facing lockdowns and all the art museums and galleries are forced to close, it seems like only this virtual Companion can still freely float around across borders and societies, greeting people from the sky with support and consolation.

Scenes from the artist’s home life. Courtesy of Cao Fei.

Have you taken up any new hobbies?

I started to love doing chores. I’ve never voluntarily done housework and laundry with this amount of patience and seriousness—same with helping my kids with their homework and teaching them how to draw. I also started to buy groceries and cook again, and I have to admit, I rarely cooked anything [previously] since I’ve been so busy with my work for the past few years. Now, I even try to challenge myself with making dumplings and desserts for my kids, which is a way to make it up to them.

What is the first place you want to travel to once this is over?

I want to go back to Beijing. I really miss our dog, Kaka. And I also want to go visit my parents, who live in southern China. They are very old now.

Dumpling ingredients. Courtesy of Cao Fei.

If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?

I would choose something physically intense to release my energy: I can swim almost everyday in Singapore, and also take a walk around the neighborhood in the evening. My method is basically cleansing the suppressed emotions through sports and chores—but to be honest, if you have kids, I don’t think you even get the chance to feel stuck since it’s already pretty overwhelming to take care of your little ones during the pandemic.

What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?

I just finished watching the second season of a Korean TV thriller on Netflix called Kingdom. It’s a show based in ancient Korea about plague and zombies. I feel like watching thrillers is a good way to “sharpen” yourself during a long period of isolation and social distancing.

If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?

WiFi is more important than art now.

Homemade dumplings. Courtesy of Cao Fei.

Favorite recipe to cook at home?

Pork and cabbage dumplings: pork, cabbage, ginger, salt, sugar, sesame oil, Chinese cooking wine, and plain flour.

What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted?  

I am hoping my kids can go back to school as soon as possible. I also want to spend time with myself—to rush back to my actual studio so I can properly work again. I also miss good chats and laughter with my friends, so I want to grab drinks and have dinner with them when things are back to normal.

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