22/01/13 Cars and Gunpowder and Plenty of Noise - New York Times

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February 22, 2008
ART REVIEW | CAI GUO-QIANG AT THE GUGGENHEIM
Cars and Gunpowder and Plenty of Noise
By ROBERTA SMITH
Correction Appended
The Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of the work of the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is nothing if not
action packed. The galleries are so rife with the sound of explosions and the sight of suspended objects and
wildlife (stuffed) that it might almost be a movie set for some new martial-arts spy thriller. Perhaps “The
Air-Bourne Aesthetic: Writhing Tigers, Hurtling Wolves.”
Organized by Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Alexandra Munroe, the
museum’s senior curator of Asian art, this exhibition nearly fills the museum and introduces a conceptually
inclined impresario best known for works using gunpowder. Regularly hailed as a global artist and chosen to
oversee the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Mr. Cai has parlayed a United
Nations’ worth of cultural sources and artistic strategies into crowd-pleasing, easily deciphered if not
terribly original art.
As shown here his work breaks down into three very different categories — installation art, gunpowder land
art pieces (documented on video) and enormous gunpowder drawings — with markedly varied success. The
installation pieces are the most spectacular, albeit the emptiest and most generic. They speak the familiar
Esperanto of installation art that, subject to various cultural adjustments, has thrived at international
biennials. Their hollowness makes a certain sense, given that Mr. Cai studied stage design.
The constants are suspended motion, sudden change, violence and, at times, transformation. Even the
show’s title, “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” suggests yearning for a different state, and whether this
desire concerns art, religion, magic or U.F.O.’s is itself left up in the air.
The displays lead off with seven white sedans suspended as if they were back-flipping upward into the
museum’s seven-story-high rotunda while spewing gorgeous sprays of neon sparks — an ambiguous
comment on car bombings or Nascar racing. On the first ramp nine imitation (if quite real-looking) stuffed
tigers pincushioned with scores of arrows writhe in the air in furious death throes, a violent clash between
nature and man that conjures royal hunts, extinct species and excessive force.
On the next ramp 99 stuffed wolves stream toward the ceiling and hurl themselves at a glass wall; the work
suggests another instance of nature running amok or perhaps mindless might aimed at an invisible enemy
like terrorism. These pieces in particular suffer from an almost Disneyesque exaggeration. In contrast, “An
Arbitrary History: River,” a considerably less trompe l’oeil installation work, involves attractively rough-
hewn pieces, including a woven-basket canal filled with water and dried animal-hide rafts for paddling in it.
But the ensemble effect is, again, familiar; it suggests a 1980s Neo-Expressionist painting in three
dimensions.
Reflecting the fluidity of contemporary culture, Mr. Cai’s work takes inspiration from Chinese brush
painting, Gutai painting-performance, Duchamp’s ready-mades, Dadaist provocation, Joseph Beuys’s “social
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sculpture,” Arte Povera and even Neo-Expressionism. Its use of fire echoes that of the French postwar
artist Yves Klein, who was himself influenced by Zen Buddhism and the martial arts. Buddhist, Confucian,
Taoist and Maoist themes are also frequently mentioned, although they sometimes seem to exist more
tangibly in the works’ labels or Mr. Cai’s comments than in the art itself.
But these elements are all part of the artist’s biography. Born in 1957, Mr. Cai (whose full name is
pronounced sigh gwo-chee-ang) grew up in Quanzhou in southern China, where there was a modicum of
religious freedom. His father, an artist, ran a bookstore for the party elite; he slipped his son copies of
forbidden Western literature (“Death of a Salesman,” “Waiting for Godot”) and introduced him to the
traditions of Chinese painting and calligraphy. The family was able to avoid the privations of the Cultural
Revolution. In 1986 he went to study in Japan and remained there before moving to New York in 1995.
Since Mr. Cai emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s, his work has often been seen as pure and above the
market. It is lauded for its emphasis on collective activity and its expansion of the principles of
appropriation, and in fact its populist thrust and often ephemeral nature can make it a welcome antidote to
the world of saleable art objects, commercial galleries and auctions. But Mr. Cai’s work is also quite
expensive to realize. And his prominence is the product of a system that rivals the market in size and
power: that of biennial exhibitions, public commissions and international organizations. Both systems,
commercial and institutional, are driven by spectacle, whether the spectacle of high prices or the spectacle
of large scale or feats of installation.
Take for example the rare moment of stasis at the show’s conclusion: a large, salt-bitten hull of a Japanese
fishing boat, resurrected from the sea and now marooned on a bed of shattered white porcelain statues. Mr.
Cai has shown it twice before, and each time it is assembled and disassembled by the crew of Japanese
workers and fishermen who originally recovered it. This is what might be called extreme appropriation art;
the hull is hauntingly beautiful, not primarily as art but as an archaeological specimen and feat of
engineering, both in its construction and its placement in a museum.
Another work of extreme appropriation pushes into Conceptual Art territory. “New York’s Rent Collection
Courtyard,” the first version of which Mr. Cai exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, centers on a
melodramatic Social Realist sculpture of dozens of life-size figures. Originally made in 1965 and widely
copied throughout China, this work extols the virtues of Communism by showing the ruthlessness of pre-
Communist landlords (the ones with whips) toward peasants. Here, as in Venice, Mr. Cai has arranged for it
to be copied once more, made from scratch by a group of Chinese artists. These men are working in the
rotunda, moving up the ramp, applying clay to one wood-and-metal armature and then another. When they
are finished, the sculptures will remain on view, drying, cracking and eventually collapsing. It is an
altogether mind-twisting play on ready-mades, originality, cultural miscegenation and the often thin
membrane between reactionary and progressive forces in both art and life.
Mr. Cai’s work is most convincing when gunpowder is involved. His land-art pieces, seen here on video, are
made with gunpowder and lengths of fuses arranged this way and that. When ignited, these works send
lines of fire speeding through landscapes like flaming snakes. In a projection one races a commuter train in
Japan. Another undulates across hilltops from the Gobi end of the Great Wall of China, forming a
momentary extension of that magnificent structure. A third leaps among giant construction cranes above
Vienna, twisting and turning like a giant dragon slithering across the sky. It is placidly titled “Dragon Sight
Sees Vienna.”
The gunpowder pieces have an endearing modesty, but are not very memorable, which ephemeral art
needs to be. That each is documented with a few seconds of video creates the impression that the crew that
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set them up with Mr. Cai may have had fun, but the effort to see them live might not always have been
worth it.
Greater satisfaction is provided by the best of the enormous gunpowder drawings and screens, whose
fuzzed and charred images result from exploding gunpowder and fuses on paper.
Videos show Mr. Cai making these works aided by assistants who spring forward to extinguish the flames
after the explosions. The motifs they save can be feathery depictions of pine needles and branches that
evoke traditional Chinese and Japanese brush painting — although when Mr. Cai adds an eagle to this motif,
his installation-art hokiness returns. Other images include mountainous or lunar landscapes, Minimalist
pyramids and, most impressively, a giant mandala with a Buddha-like silhouette at its center titled “Fetus
Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials, No. 9,” from 1991. The subtitles, shared with land-art
gunpowder pieces for which the drawings are often studies, intimate an audience beyond not only the art
world, but also the planet.
Mr. Cai always thinks big. But here, when he is more hands-on, the impresario becomes an artist.
“Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” continues through May 28 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth
Avenue, at 89th Street, Manhattan, (212) 423-3500, guggenheim.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 26, 2008
An art review in Weekend on Friday about “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” at the Guggenheim
Museum, misidentified the southern Chinese city where Mr. Cai was born and raised. It is Quanzhou, not
Guangzhou.
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