Cao Fei wins the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021

An astronaut stands alone on a beach

Cao Fei wins the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021

Cao Fei was awarded the prize for her first large-scale UK solo exhibition, Blueprints (2020), at the Serpentine Gallery, London (4 March – 17 May 2020 and 4 August – 13 September 2020). 

This immersive, site-specific presentation brought together new and existing works, including Whose Utopia? (2006), Asia One (2018) and La Town (2014) exploring the impact of technology, virtual realities, urbanisation and the alienating effects of mechanised labour on individuals and communities.

Shown in an environment that blurred the boundaries of virtual, physical and cinematic spaces, Blueprints offered visitors multiple frames of experience through precisely crafted, visually lush narratives and propositions informed by a rich resource of references. 

Cao Fei is one of the most innovative and exciting young Chinese artists to have emerged on the international scene.

Working across film, photography, digital media, sculpture and installation, Cao Fei’s longstanding interest in virtual possibilities is underpinned by her own experience of, and extensive research into, China’s historical, political and social structures. 

From early in her practice, Cao Fei harnessed the digital world as both a utopian and dystopian space, with little distinction between virtual and analogue experience. 

While her work reflects social-cultural dynamics in China, and plays with nostalgic yearning for a previous age, her focus is on the potential of what might be, of virtual possibilities. She addresses these far-reaching topics through deadpan humour and the creation of surreal encounters and fantastical scenarios.

Although each of Cao Fei‘s worlds appear to teeter on the edge of apocalyptic uncertainty, her characters navigate these complex and chaotic realities with vigour and agency, harnessing the unique possibilities of technology in order to shape a collective future.

Cao Fei's presentation for the DBPFP21 exhibition is open until 26 September and features her most recent film work, Nova (2019), alongside a selection of large-scale photographs and a publication, within a specially designed space that operates as part cinema, part stage-set, part traditional Gallery.

The award ceremony was held at The Photographers’ Gallery, London - as well as lived-streamed to an international audience - on Thu 9 Sep 2021. 

The winner announcement was made by the British broadcaster, journalist and filmmaker, Bidisha who commended all of the shortlisted artists for their aesthetic values, artistic craft and presentational excellence.  She further observed that all of them work "with heart, mind, eye and soul, combining style with substance, aesthetics with urgency as representative international artists of the 21st century.  Taken together, their practices exemplify originality, resistance, community, a rejection of insularity and a dissolving of boundaries - not just national, cultural and social, but artistic ones too."


25 Years of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize

Over the last 25 years, this leading Photography Prize has honoured ground-breaking artists from across the world, drawing attention to the diverse manifestations and innovative developments of contemporary photography. In showcasing four finalist and one winner each year, the prize has enabled remarkable artist work to be recognised and rewarded within the field, and by the wider public, while capturing, reflecting upon and questioning the changing context of the medium and its wider perception. 

To mark the legacy of the prize, two DBPFP anniversary talks with previous winners and finalists will take place this September. Audiences can join artists Laura El-Tantawy (2016 Prize finalist) and Awoiska van der Molen (2017 Prize finalist) on 14 September in conversation with TPG Director Brett Rogers, and on 16 September hear artists Oliver Chanarin (2013 Winner), Mishka Henner (2013 finalist), and Dana Lixenberg (2017 Winner) at the Gallery with Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Director Anne-Marie Beckmann, as they examine the ongoing importance of the medium,  the mechanisms of the prize and its role in shaping photographic practice today.

The Jury

The 2021 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize jury comprised: Cristina de Middel, artist; Simon Njami, independent curator, writer, lecturer and art critic; Anna Tellgren, curator of photography at Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Anne-Marie Beckmann, Director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt; and Brett Rogers, Director of The Photographers’ Gallery as the non-voting chair.