Cao Fei’s Supernova: an enthralling exhibition at MAXXI in Rome

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Balancing tradition and innovation

Chinese artist Cao Fei’s first solo exhibition in Italy reflects on the interplay between tradition and innovation; the real and virtual world. This immersive exhibition Supernova at MAXXI – the National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome – runs until 8th May 2022.

International artist

Born in Guangzhou in 1978 and based in Beijing, Fei is one of the world’s most innovative artists, having exhibited at Tate Modern in London and Biennale Arte in Venice. Commenting on the transformation of Chinese society, her art addresses pressing themes of contemporary life, from the fate of cities to relationships in an increasingly alienating society.

MAXXI’s Curator Hou Hanru says, “Fei’s works are often outrageous and extravagant, but at the same time romantic and poetic, with a strong dose of seriousness and even criticism, always accompanied by irony, satire and, above all, humour.”


A fantasy world

Fei’s MAXXI exhibition is somewhat unsettling. The boundary between reality and fantasy becomes blurred, and present, past and future become almost indistinguishable.

One of Fei’s works, ‘Nova,’ is a film set in an imaginary city, which delves into the life of a scientist working for a computer engineering company. He decides to run an experiment on his son which results in the boy transforming into a digital soul, stuck between reality and a computerised dreamworld. 

Another of her works, the installation ‘The Eternal Wave,’ takes spectators on a surreal journey that starts in the artist’s kitchen and continues through unknown scenarios in a virtual dimension. Pushing the boundaries of time and space, it allows the viewer to play an active role in the journey.

Comments on society

Other satirical works include ‘Haze and Fog.’ Based on the zombie film genre, it shows middle class people wandering around Beijing immersed in fog in a comment on the city’s pollution and “dullness of the mind.” ‘La Town’ meanwhile is inspired by post-apocalyptic scenarios; it tells the story of a mythological city that has been ravaged by unknown catastrophic events.

The show ends with ‘Isle of Instability,’ which explores the psychological repercussions of the Covid pandemic, drawing from Fei’s own experience of staying in Singapore with her family for nine months. 

Hanru adds, “This engagement with the latest events of a fast-changing world is not new to Fei: over the decades, she has worked hard to address urgent issues of society and tackle them with her distinctive perspective and language. And this language is always evolving, testing and adopting the most advanced potential offered by the latest technology in image-making and communication.”

While Fei’s work is meditative and critical of contemporary China, it isn’t always serious, says Hanru. “Fei’s works always mix sweetness and bitterness, joy and despair, utopia and dystopia – they all also brim with a sense of fun. The most important thing is fun!”


Hotel de Russie makes the perfect base to explore Rome’s exciting contemporary art exhibitions.

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