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59 min. Cantonese, English.

Prison Architect takes inspiration from the somber histories of the Victoria Prison, located in the earliest penal structure complex built in Hong Kong under British colonial rule. The work was filmed on the site of the original prison, which today houses an important part of the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, opened in June 2018 after ten years of restoration work.
The two protagonists – an architect and a prisoner living in parallel realities in the present time and an ambiguous distanced past, respectively – conjure up imaginations and experiences of imprisonment. In their dialogue across space and time they debate the relations between humans, the world, and freedom. They talk of visible and invisible imprisonment, existentialism as a means of self-redemption, and at the same time question the relationship of humans to the space around them. An attempt at reconciliation with the world and human nature.
Prison Architect is inspired by “The Comfort of Captivity”, a short story by Hu Fang.

Cao Fei, born in Guangzhou, China in 1978 is an artist currently living in Beijing. Her films and installations have been showcased at a number of international biennials and triennials and major museums.

Cao Fei in Conversation

17 November 2018
Ocula Magazine

Qu Chang: Some of your previous works have been situated in Hong Kong or have referenced Hong Kong as a subject. What do you think of PRISON ARCHITECT’s relationship with the city? As a native Cantonese, how do you connect yourself with the exhibition site?

Cao Fei: It’s actually not the first time I’ve exhibited in Hong Kong. In 2015, I was involved in the LED light project at the ICC (International Commerce Centre); and in 2013, I participated in the Mobile M+ exhibition, “Inflation!”. The work I exhibited was an inflated, gigantic suckling pig. Audience members queued to enter its body. I think the Hong Kong audience showed a deep understanding of the elements in my works, perhaps partly because I grew up in Guangzhou, a city that belongs to the Chinese ‘Greater Bay Area’, of which Hong Kong is a part.
So, Hong Kong culture is quite familiar to me. I grew up with its influential popular culture, and the language and the cuisine are similar. In terms of ‘cultural differences’, Beijing is more distant to me than Hong Kong.
Tai Kwun’s own history was unfamiliar to me to start with, but I was met with very few difficulties concerning the shooting space and cinematic language: an artist from the North would have to use Cantonese carefully to process the theme and language of the project, but the language barrier never existed for me. (…) The Tai Kwun project didn’t imply an ‘other’ culture, and there was no need to painstakingly address the site-specificity: it was all natural to me.

QC: During the credits of PRISON ARCHITECT, it’s mentioned that you took inspiration from the short story “The Consolation of Imprisonment” by Hu Fang, the novelist and curator who co-founded Vitamin Space in Guangzhou. How is the story re-written and integrated into your piece?

CF: I only came across this text last year, but even still, it guided the tone and the direction of the film somehow. The novel investigates all kinds of prisons and humanity’s perception of imprisonment; it asks what the objective of captivity is, and how to understand it from a non-confrontational perspective. The book analyses the purposes and structures of numerous prisons from various times and places. I incorporated my reflections on this book into the history of Tai Kwun, and added layers such as the protagonists, the time-space, and the historical context of Hong Kong. The process broadened my understanding of ‘prison’, and rather than brutally categorize ‘prison’ as a kind of violence, I began to gradually understand it as a wider spectrum. I contemplated how we live with the notion of ‘imprisonment’ – imprisonment in a physical cell, ‘non-prison’ prisons, and a prison transformed into a cultural center. From this, the role of an architect emerged, and it’s through this perspective that viewers are guided into the film and encouraged to digest the space and its history.
There are some other texts you can see in the film – for instance, an anthology of poems titled “The Gulf”, written by a prisoner. After the screening at the opening of the show, Hu Fang asked me about the author of this anthology. I laughed – it’s entirely fictional.

QC: The idea of ‘prison’, or what you could call a ‘prison perspective’, is a subtle theme in many of your works (…). In PRISON ARCHITECT, the hidden narrative became a subject matter. How has this evolved?
CF: I like the way you suggest that it emerges from a ‘hidden narrative’, it really connects to the history of the prison itself. Some people think the piece was created to promote Tai Kwun, which I find ridiculous, though I can’t help what people think. On one hand, the Tai Kwun project doesn’t need my promotion. On the other hand, making works at its real location has been important to me. For instance, in ASIA ONE, we went to the logistics company JD and shot on-site, although the easier option would have been to rent a similar place to do the shooting, as is often done in the film industry. But we chose to shoot on-site, even though it meant we had to look for support from JD and gain their permission. We did, and the miracle happened.

(...) You could say that the Tai Kwun commission aligns with my work pattern of basing the creative part on reality – a fictional telling on top of a real structure. The shooting of PRISON ARCHITECT was finished before the venue was open to the public – partly because I wanted to freeze-frame the state of a place like that, through an artwork, before tourists flooded in. How many chances exist to create a piece in a real jail? The commission was a valuable chance for me. On-site shooting was the crucial part – of course we could have re-constructed a cell elsewhere, but what’s the point of doing that? PRISON ARCHITECT differs from my previous works in that it involves space, texture, professional actors, and performances staged by artist groups. Yet the structure I created wasn’t overly transparent; there are no explicit historical references to the prison. I think the overall tone creates a reflective scenario.

This interview between Cao Fei and Ocula contributor Qu Chang was first published in Ocula Magazine on 17 November 2018. It is published now with permission of Ocula.

Production Xue Tan, Gabe Chan. Production company Tai Kwun Contemporary (Hong Kong SAR, People's Republic of China). Written and directed by Cao Fei. Cinematography Kwan Pun Leung. Editing Cao Fei. Music Dickson Dee. Production design Cyann Ho Pui Yu. Sound design Dickson Dee. Sound Lam Hon Fung Victor. Costumes Sean K. Make-up Candy Law Hiu Man. Assistant director Thomas Lee Chi Wai. Production manager Elysa Wendi. Commissioned by Tai Kwun Contemporary. With Valerie Chow Kar Ling (Architect), Kwan Sheung Chi (Poet), Wong Ting Kong (Junior Prison Officer), Cheung Ho Kit (Prison Officer), Wong Ting Pong (Prisoner), Tsui Ka Lok (Prisoner), Lo Ka Chun (Prisoner), Wong Hei Nam (Prisoner), Andrew Kwok (Prisoner), Lee Wai Shing (Prisoner), Wong Hing Kok (Prisoner), Chung Chee Ching (Conductor).

World sales Vitamin Creative Space


selection: 2006: Whose Utopia (20 min.). 2007: i.Mirror (28 min.). 2013: Haze and Fog (60 min.). 2018: Asia One (video installation). 2019: Prison Architect.

Photo: © Cao Fei

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
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