April 2008, Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe

 Cai Guo-Qiang
 Inopportune: Stage One, 2004
 Nine cars and sequenced multichannel light tubes
 Dimensions variable
 Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, in honor of the 75th Anniversary
 of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006
 Exhibition copy installed at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008
 © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald.

Artifacts of the Modern Age
Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
February 22 through May 28, 2008

Cai Guo-Qiang’s retrospective at the Guggenheim aims for two places: the gut and the hairs on the back of your neck. Like many of the large, international installation and performance artists practicing today, his work transcends cultural barriers by enveloping the viewer in surrounding spectacle, and grabbing hold of his insides, where language is of little use.

The Guggenheim is an impressive building among a city of architectural wonders, but exhibits within the museum do not often make use of the uniqueness of the space. Every element of Cai Guo-Qiang’s retrospective, however, shows a deep consciousness of the possibilities inherent to the structure of the building. His adaptation of Inopportune, which was originally displayed in the football field-sized exhibition space at MassMOCA, has drawn a response of overwhelming awe from those who have seen it (and those who have only seen the ads on the subway) that to my mind eclipses what Christo did in Central Park two years ago. Cars suspended in the atrium of the Guggenheim! Light diodes flashing as if in explosion! Mr. Cai’s exhibition did not get the kind of fanfare that Christo’s did, but his work elicits the same sense of wide-eyed wonder, and similarly serves to breathe life back into aging public projects that were at one time great works of art themselves.

Cai Guo-Qiang
The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996 (Manhattan)
Realized in New York City, looking toward Manhattan, April 20, 1996, approximately 3 seconds
Gunpowder (10 g) and cardboard tube
Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

Inopportune, is presented in three stages, and after passing under the suspended Chevys in the atrium, we encounter another stage: a video of a car exploding in Times Square. All of a sudden, the spectacle becomes grounded (this isn’t just trick of the eye or merely about cars defying gravity). One can’t help but reflect on these pieces of art as embedded in the fantastical imagery of our videographic culture. In his 1996 work The Century with Mushroom Clouds, Mr. Cai remarks that “the mushroom cloud represents a beautiful, monumental image.” His comment is prescient of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s incendiary observation after 9/11 that we had just witnessed “the biggest work of art there had ever been.” There is a deep and intertwining relationship between art, politics, and action that manifests itself in visual works of this age. Therefore, there is something almost urgent in the experience of the cars and the video imagery, which endeavors to recall a phenomenon that a vast swath of us watch and feel on an everyday basis, but struggle to understand. Something at once frightening, unreal, and (terrifyingly, perhaps) filled with wonder. Something that people must have felt sixty years ago upon seeing the first images of the giant mushroom cloud over Hiroshima—an image that itself transcended international borders, just as Mr. Cai’s own work does. Cai Guo-Qiang is the consummate mash-up artist, pushing us to engage with the images that have become a shared tongue between our diverse nations in modern history.

The winding staircase of the Guggenheim takes us next from the immediacy of the exploding cars to a more primitive encounter with violence in the series of taxidermy tigers, and the excavated boat suspended in a separate room in Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows. Both sets of installations are almost completely covered with long, feathered arrows. It’s hard to explain the grotesque visceral feeling of seeing soft, feathers on sticks whose ends one imagines sharply pointed, relentlessly covering every inch of an object, whether that object is animal or artificial. (For one does not see the sharp points of the arrows at all in these pieces; rather it is the feathers and the shafts that leap out—neither of which is a symbol of danger or death, which is possibly what makes them most disturbing.) The 50 bullets that sprayed Sean Bell and his car in Queens last year come to mind.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Borrowing your Enemy’s Arrows, 1998,
Wooden boat, canvas sail, arrows, metal, rope, Chinese flag, and electric fan
Boat approximately 152.4 x 720 x 230 cm; arrows approximately 62 cm each
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in Honor of Glenn D. Lowry
Installed at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald.

But all of a sudden we are now drawn into a violence that penetrates inwardly as arrows do, rather than outwardly as a bomb does. The confrontation is closer. The combat is face to face. And on each floor we have another encounter with violence: 99 wolves running headlong into a glass wall that is the same size and thickness as the Berlin Wall; the cracking clay bodies of the Rent Collection Courtyard (the cracks, hauntingly, seeming to collect around the neck and crania of the human figures as it dries); the gunpowder paintings; the explosion events. Maybe it was the dusty figures in the Rent Collection Courtyard that reminded me of the bodies at Pompeii, but for a moment I had the sensation of looking at the artifacts of an archeological dig, which had uncovered the last moments of a culture in all of its final horrified poses.

Seeing these pieces together in one retrospective Mr. Cai presents us with a complicated reflection on violence, and both our primitive and contemporary relations to it. I can hardly think of any other theme that is more pressing for our global sensibilities in the last decade—or even the last century—and any less masterful a way of engaging our hesitant wonder in relation to it.

See Jan Van Woensel's review of Cai Guo-Qiang's I want to Believe here.

Marika Josephson

Marika Josephson writes about art and politics, and is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

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