Critics’ Picks

Cao Fei, Prison Architect, 2018, video, color, sound, 57 minutes.

Cao Fei, Prison Architect, 2018, video, color, sound, 57 minutes.

Hong Kong

Cao Fei

Tai Kwun Contemporary
10 Hollywood Road, Central
September 8–December 8, 2018

Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts opened in a former colonial-era prison and police complex in Hong Kong this June, with an ambitious contemporary art program that comes as a relief to a public still awaiting the much-delayed opening of M+, the city’s new public museum.

Installed in the center’s Herzog and de Meuron–designed exhibition space, Cao Fei’s solo show is grounded by her hour-long site-specific film Prison Architect, 2018. Shot at Tai Kwun earlier this year, the film revolves around an imagined conversation between a prisoner from an undetermined time and a present-day architect (played by Hong Kong actress Valerie Chow Kar-ling). The narrative switches back and forth between temporalities; while the prisoner—incarcerated for allegedly writing treasonous poetry—laments his captivity in a damp, shadowy cell, the morally conflicted architect is tasked with converting Tai Kwun from an art center back into a prison. Aptly addressing the elephant in the room—Tai Kwun’s troubling history as a site of colonial force—the film also presents an architectural concern of recent decades: Can artful institutional design have a humanizing impact?

In a nod to the film’s on-site production, sets and props used in the making of Prison Architect are present throughout the galleries, including a warden’s office featuring a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and half-smoked cigarettes. In other rooms are unrelated works, such as the post-apocalyptic film La Town, 2014; Rumba, 2015–18, an installation of roving robot vacuums; and Coming Soon: Hong Kong, 2018, a continuous performance where two people on swings kick wall-mounted drum sets. Hanging from the gallery’s cochlear stairwell is a long vine of mangoes—a fruit that appears through the film and which Cao seems to use as a stand-in for joy. In one of Prison Architect’s most powerful scenes, prisoners are released into a rainy courtyard, where they stuff their mouths with sweet mango flesh, laughing, elated by their newfound freedom. Leaving the exhibition, visitors walk through the exact same space, now filled with cafes and gift shops.