March 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.

Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
February 22 through May 28, 2008

If not all year round than at least twice a year, the New York art scene is the most saturated. The first art explosion traditionally detonates with the beginning of the new season. In September, all galleries, not for profits, museums and alternative venues in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and other boroughs open new shows, art parades, festivals and whatnot with great triumph and excitement. The second art blast, too, has a strong impact on the cities’ cultural landscape. The Armory Show, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, is the perfect reason, or excuse, for permanent and occasional art venues in and around the city to show off with something more amazing, bigger or never seen before. There’s art and people who buy art, write about art, or simply like art everywhere.

Bigger, better and more. With nearly three million annual visitors, the Guggenheim is one of the most visited cultural institutions in the world. Still enclosed by scaffolds for their ongoing renovation works, the New York Guggenheim Museum opens its first solo show devoted to a Chinese-born artist: Cai Guo-Qiang. The artist, Director Thomas Krens and Senior Curator of Asian Art Alexandra Munroe wanted something comprehensive, and that’s what we get. More than 80 works from the 1980’s to the present, selected from major public and private collections in the U.S., Europe and Asia, fill the spiral corridors and adjacent galleries of the museum. For the organizers, sponsors and many visitors, the installation Inopportune: Stage One (2004) is definitely the eye-catcher, crowd magnet and ultimate wow. Nine real cars pierced with blinking light tubes that simulate the trajectory of a car bomb explosion tumble upwards through the atrium’s void. In a video posted on the Guggenheim’s website that shows the installation process of this piece, Krens proudly calls this installation the “best artistic transformation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda building.” Yet, more interesting than that is Munroe’s bold prediction of the visitor’s experience with this piece. She says that “the first experience that the viewers will have is one of assault, confrontation, tremendous violence, and yet it is a highly aestheticized violence. There is a beauty, and a harmony that transcends the actual imagery.” Frankly, Inopportune: Stage One (2004) is just an aesthetic piece, and sure, it is at least a bit impressive. In a typical American institutional way, no further information on Cai Guo-Qiang’s politically charged installation is given. Maybe the artist doesn’t have a strong political statement to make, perhaps the piece should just be seen in relation to explosions in general, or, perhaps the museum doesn’t really want to confront their visitors, staff, board and trustees with something truly disturbing. Whatever the reason is, by not further informing the visitor, it is made impossible to accuse the big, powerful and important Guggenheim Museum from embellishing or glorifying daily occurring terrorist actions such as car bomb explosion. And therefore, too, the work is just aesthetic and definitely not assaulting.


The subtitle of the exhibition, I Want to Believe, suggests the ambiguities at the core of Cai Guo-Qiang’s wide-ranging artistic practice. It also expresses the artist’s curiosity with the universe and the spirit of questioning societal status quos. For Cai, art is the experience of believing in something that is unseen, or exists beyond belief. This may be true for each practicing artist who creates something that wasn’t visible yet, and consequently freezes his vision in an image or a series of images. Cai’s explosion events are not frozen images. They are related in sheer scale to site–specific Land Art projects, where art disrupts the environment by employing it to radical aesthetic use. Unlike most Land Art, Cai’s events are intentionally transient. As time–based works created for live public audiences, the explosion events operate as performances, whose impact – thunderous bangs, fiery light, smoke, and floating debris – conjures both violent chaos and ritual celebration. It is commonly known that before, during and after ceremonial events in China, gunpowder, literally meaning “fire–medicine,” is used to scare off bad spirits. Taoist alchemists discovered it in search for an imperial “elixir of immortality.” In this context, Cai Guo-Qiang’s explosion events and gunpowder drawings have been likened to the practice of a shaman who invokes agents of a spirit world to cause a reaction in the material world. But, while a shaman, at least for those who believe in alternative or spiritual healing, has a valid, constructive value; Cai’s explosion events are aestheticized and divorced from those values. They reference and illustrate the practice of a shaman or go–between the physical and spiritual realms, but apart from their status as artworks or live aerial events, they have no other value. This is not necessarily a critique. It is a fairly unexplored territory in the oeuvre of this artist: the artistic application of materials and effects commonly used in spiritual healing in Eastern cultures. The Guggenheim’s press kit states that “in a contemporary art context, these traditional associations and symbolism of Chinese society, open up to Western interpretations.” Hence, the necessity for the American museum visitor to transcend from his Western point of view and come to an understanding of the social, spiritual and metaphorical context of the oeuvre of this artist.


Cai Guo-Qiang is a peripatetic, transnational artist whose work explores and challenges the function and meaning of art within a wider social sphere. Central to his practice is the contraction of site–specificity with a conscious transcendence of cultural and temporal limitations. Responding to the conditions of each new location for a project, Cai approaches its place, patrimony, and indigenous practice with the sensibility of an archaeologist or historian. These ongoing experiments and interventions carry out the artist’s utopian ideals of social engagement and mobilization, with a sustained belief in the transformational nature and the potential dialogue within communities of people. If everything is a museum, then the museum should be treated in a similar way. I wonder in which way Cai’s utopian ideals, cross-communal dialogues and engagement are at all possible within the highly orchestrated institutional walls. But, I want to believe.

Read Marika Josephson's article on Cai Guo-Qiang's I Want to Believe here.

Jan Van Woensel

Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer and curator of Studio Philippe Vandenberg. Van Woensel is professor at CCA, dept of Curatorial Practice in San Francisco; Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; and NYU, dept of Art and Art Professions in New York. Office Jan Van Woensel, a team of assistant curators supervised by Van Woensel, works with international clients such as private collectors, art galleries and artists on exhibitions. Contact: 

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