By Nargess Banks - Forbes
A BMW M6 GT3 racecar appears on stage, cloaked in matt carbon black. The audience aim their smartphones at the number 18 on the car and through an app project colorful light swishes onto its surface. The augmented reality technology transforms the M6 into other-worldly shapes for a moving, dancing sculpture in virtuality. Meet the latest BMW Art Car #18. If this sounds like the most surreal Art Car to date, then that’s because it is.
The multimedia artist behind this latest project is one of China’s rising stars, Cao Fei. Following the contributions by art world royalties Jeff Koons and John Baldessari, at 39 Fei is also the youngest and the first Chinese artist to be involved in the series. The unique BMW Art Car project started life in 1975 when racing driver Hervé Poulain casually asked his artist friend Alexander Calder to paint a 3.0 CSL which he subsequently raced at Le Mans. Since, the paintbrush of some of the most notable names in art history have stroked BMW racecars, with all but one competing on the international racing scene. Watching a work of art race towards the finish line can be sensational.
There have been some incredible contributions – who can forget the Koons M3 GT2 in its riot of colors racing at the Le Mans in 2010. Yet until now none have attempted to take the car into virtual space. A decade ago, artist Olafur Eliasson made an ecological statement by removing the wheels from his Art Car, but Cao has taken a greater leap by using the occasion to make a statement on the second life of the automobile – the clean, multi-functioning, digitalized, autonomous vehicle. Simultaneously, she is narrating the dazzling speed of China’s evolution.
Cao’s work is presented in three layers - a short film titled ‘Unmanned’, the carbon black racecar and a free app that employs both virtual and augmented reality - all to be seen simultaneously for a theatrical and interactive experience. Unmanned (well worth seeing for its cinematic brilliance and soundtrack Gosh by Jamie xx) sees a time-travelling monk leave a tranquil hilltop, setting off by foot toward a nameless megacity passing fragments of modern China - mass construction of soulless high rises, super highways with their endless traffic, giant advertising billboards, a factory car park with row upon row of identical cars.
He approaches the black M6 GT3, puts on a VR headset and executes spiritual movements, which echo in colorful streams of light. The monk’s dance is paying tribute to the traditional Asian spiritual ceremony of blessing a new object, here the racecar and driver. The light elements mirror what the eyes cannot see and the mind may not picture. In the real world, when the app is used within the premises of the car, these light swishes become an AR installation floating above and around the car. We, the spectator, therefore become an interactive participant. This is art as experience.
Cao was chosen by an independent jury that includes some of the world’s most notable gallery directors, but it took some convincing the BMW board members in Munich. “It wasn’t easy for the company to go ahead with this car,” admits Thomas Girst, head of BMW Group cultural engagement. “The Art Car project was always about celebrating the artwork and racing – it wasn’t about autonomous flying cars! But it felt like a natural development of the series.” The jury too were unanimously in favor of Cao. Richard Armstrong, director Guggenheim Museum New York, says: “She is a very courageous choice because of her capacity to make parallel universes.”
One of the premises behind the Art Car project is to allow the artists complete creative freedom, that is as long as they don’t mess with the body weight or aerodynamics of the racecar, says Girst. In Cao’s case the challenge was to find a surface that would work with augmented reality technology. The only way this could function effectively is on a non-reflective matt color - reflective surfaces simply cannot be picked up by the algorithm. Cao says: “I needed the darkest of shades so when the color appears with the AR you only see the shadow of the car.”
The artist is very much from the digital age. She has a prominent presence in Second Life and says she views the machine as human. You can sense her comfort within the virtual world. “When looking at the boundaries between the virtual and real world my answer is light, something visible and something invisible. To me, light represents thoughts. As the speed of thoughts cannot be measured, the Art Car questions the existence of the boundaries of the human mind.”
She offers: “We are entering a new age, where the mind directly controls objects and where thoughts can be transferred, such as unmanned operations and artificial intelligence. Which attitudes and temperaments hold the key to opening the gateway to the new age?”
The artist is also from a generation born into a modern China. Her father was a prominent socialist realist sculptor who created busts of heroes and political figures. In contrast, the young Cao was raised in Guangzhou, a city close to Hong Kong and one of the first to experience Westernization in the 1980s. She admits her work takes a great deal from witnessing China’s rapid development. This, alongside a childhood observing her father’s more traditional work, has helped inform her art work.
“Being from the new generation, I could see this new China and you can see these contradictions in the development of my work.” She admits there are constraints working as an artist in China but that “swimming along is a Chinese skill,” she smiles. “My father was expressing the idea of restrictions within restrictions. For me virtuality is a means to express myself, to understand reality which is what I’m interested in. We are living in an age of rapid technology and in this context, we need to know that virtuality has changed the way reality works. And to do this we need to be part of it,” she says. “Here I want to convey a message to the younger generation by using an app. This kind of interaction is crucial for me.”
The romance of the motor car, that historical and emotional connection, has little value in China. Cars for mass consumption is a relatively new concept here and I cannot help wonder if, in much the same way Cao is so comfortable in the digital world, the second life of cars which we conceptually perhaps struggle with in Europe, feels like a natural evolution to her. China’s dazzling development, whereby city maps have to be reconfigured every six months, leaves little time for the romance of contemplation.
As BMW continues to reposition itself as a tech firm, exploring cars that are advanced mobile tech gadgets, I ask the artist if she is aware that her car is expressing this vision. “Today, it isn’t enough to use a brush to paint but we need to go beyond aesthetic values,” she offers. “The monk in the film is travelling from past to the future through different spaces. It is about past, present and future, but also reality and virtuality. Image can give energy to cars because this kind of energy cannot be expressed in language. These images can showcase our vision for the future automobile.”
The eighteenth BMW Art Car has taken three years from initial concept during which time Cao, who doesn’t hold a driving license, had a racing experience in Switzerland that greatly informed her work, as well as spent time at the BMW headquarters working closely with the engineers and digital specialists.
A virtual experience of the #18 Art Car will be on display during Art Basel later this month. Most importantly, BMW racing driver Augusto Farfus will take the M6 GT3 on the track at FIA FT World Cup in Macau in November. The team admit that they are working on how to project the AR on a car moving at such speed. Jens Marquardt, BMW Motorsport director, says the project perfectly suits this era. “The augmented reality experience makes this unique, making the tradition of BMW Art Cars livelier than ever.”