Cao Fei has won one of the most prestigious prizes in photography for work that explores the impact of technology and urbanisation, along with our obsession with screens. The judges said she perfectly captures the isolation and alienation experienced in an increasingly digital age.
The Chinese artist was announced the winner of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize 2021 at the Photographer's Gallery in London last night, scooping £30,000. The work, which was made before the pandemic, includes Asia One, a film described as a "surreal sci-fi romcom that speaks to China’s past and the global future", which was set in a factory where people work alongside automated machines. There's also Whose Utopia, a film made in 2006 set in a light bulb factory in China, and La Town, which presents a post-apocalyptic cityscape through a cinematic stop-motion animation.
Brett Rogers, the director of the Photographer's Gallery and chair of the Deutsche Börse jury, said her work was a perfect reflection of our post-pandemic world. "Although she speaks from a position rooted in Chinese history, she addresses universally resonant themes in her immaculately crafted narratives: The importance and fragility of human connection, the power of love, the ethics of technology, and existential malaise.
"To a large degree, all her work explores technology as a source of alienation but also as the thing that binds us – it's neither a totally bleak nor overly optimistic vision, but it is ultimately humane."
Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, China, Cao Fei is considered one of the most innovative and exciting young Chinese artists today. Working across film, photography, digital media, sculpture and installation, she has a longstanding interest in the virtual world as well as her experience of China's historical, political and social structures.
From early in her practice, she has harnessed the digital world as both a utopian and dystopian space, with little distinction between virtual and analogue. While her work reflects social-cultural dynamics in China, and plays with nostalgic yearning for a previous (more private) off-screen age, her focus is on the potential of what might be. Although quite sombre in its apocalyptic theme, Cao Fei's work offers a little deadpan humour, surrealism and fantasy.
Anne-Marie Beckmann, the director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, adds: "Drawing upon extensive research and a wealth of cultural and visual references, her work offers a uniquely poetic dystopia that echoes the human condition today. She captures the particular isolation and alienation experienced in our increasingly digital age through a distinctive and seductive visual language that speaks both through and about images and their place in the world today."
This year's award, which also marks the 25th anniversary of this annual prize, recognises artists and projects deemed to have made the most innovative and significant contribution to photography over the previous 12 months.
The work of all the 2021 shortlisted artists, Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena, Cao Fei and Zineb Sedira, remains on display at The Photographers' Gallery, curated by Anna Dannemann, until 26 September 2021.