Disturbing Beauty: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Disturbing Beauty: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

W.H. Auden once famously cautioned that “poetry makes nothing happen.”  Cai Guo-Qiang—the Chinese artist whose ravishing provocations fill The Guggenheim Museum’s spiral rotunda (and several rooms in the museum’s rectilinear extension) until May 28, 2008—has no such qualms about mingling art and politics.

Sensuous, exasperating, seductive, and grandly ambitious, Cai’s work also boldly appropriates traditional Western and Eastern forms and imagery while demonstrating his mastery of the contemporary international predilection for controversy, genre bending, and conceptual daring.

Originally trained as a set designer, Cai often seeks public significance in the most literal sense.  He stages dramatic events or performances involving controlled explosions, attracts large crowds, then videotapes the spectacle for later museum viewing.  Much of his work aims to engage the masses rather than to compel a solitary viewer’s encounter with a unique, numinous object.

But Cai also reaches beyond mass appeal and attempts to foster “social transformation.”  In Cultural Melting Bath: Project for the 20th Century, installed at P.S. 121 in 1992, he enticed ethnically diverse New Yorkers to soak together in a hot tub, for instance.  In 1995, he mobilized a Japanese coastal village to help build a project called San Jo Tower, a large, tiered wooden structure scavenged from an excavated sunken ship.  Cai, who left China in 1986 (first for Japan and then, in 1995, for Manhattan), clearly regards art as a collective political act.  Indeed, his extensive self-commentary suggests he views his work through the collectivist, bloodstained prism of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Certain pieces in the retrospective, such as Cai’s shrewd appropriation of a 1960’s Chinese agit-prop sculptural group—entitled Rent Collection Courtyard—suggest Maoist influences.  The installation contains 114 life-sized figures and consists of numerous melodramatic tableaux of pre-Communist landlords mistreating peasants.

Cai cannily ironizes these influences, however.  First, he distances himself from the work’s crude socialist realism by having the original sculptor, Long Xu Li, re-create his work right on the exhibition floor during Cai’s retrospective.  Indeed, Long and his assistants can be seen lovingly re-sculpting Rent Collection Courtyard’s iconic scenes of half-starved women heaving heavy baskets of rice and cruel overseers cracking the whip on sway-backed grandfathers and stunted children.

Visitors wander among the works in progress and watch as Long’s crew construct skeletal armatures out of wood and wire; unwrap slabs of wet raw clay; build up legs, arms, and torsos, chunk by chunk; refine gestures and faces with small spatulas; then minutely scrape and model each figure with short wands tipped by thin wire hoops.  Cai, himself, never touches the pieces.

Second, he’s persuaded Long to refrain from firing or treating the clay figures properly.  As they dry, both peasants and landlords crack and disintegrate, as if this old-fashioned Maoist theater of conflict has crumbled from neglect under the new global capitalism—a scenario in which a resurgent China now plays a leading role.

What Cai really thinks about Mao, Communism, capitalism, China, and the West remains blurry, however.  The catalogue quotes Cai as saying, “To us Mao Zedong is the most influential person in the latter half of the twentieth century.  He is the idol, God-like…  [His] artistic talent, calligraphy, poetry, military strategies, philosophy, essays, and revolution movements deeply influenced my generation, despite the fact that later on we all started to question his ideologies.”  This seems like a case of having your cake and eating it, too.  Is the only questionable aspect of Mao’s legacy his “ideologies?”  It also seems very un-Maoist to separate Maoist politics from their consequences for millions of Chinese.  Still, Cai’s “sampling” from the Cultural Revolutionary past is a brilliant tour de force.

Cai’s retrospective is also simultaneously riveting and disturbing because of its nationalist undertones.  Just as Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern in 1991 and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000 cemented China’s arrival as a global cinematic superpower, Cai Guo-Qiang’s current retrospective marks the self-conscious assertion of a dazzling Chinese pre-eminence in contemporary art.  The link between China’s burgeoning mercantile power and its growing cultural influence is hard to miss.

Indeed, The New York Times recently reported that three contemporary Chinese art auctions in Hong Kong grossed a record-breaking $51.7 million in one day.  One of Cai’s drawings sold for $973,000 at these same auctions.  In fact, in 2007, China edged out France as the third largest art auction market after the United States and Great Britain.  This development lends new life to the tired Marxist saw that cultural “superstructure” inevitably follows economic “infrastructure.”

Unlike many conceptual artists, however, whose work often feels disembodied or bloodless, even Cai’s most speculative projects remain earthy and lyrical.  They also depend on a deeply original engagement with the physical world.  As Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim’s Curator of Asian Art, notes in her catalogue essay: “Cai is best known for his use of gunpowder.  Invented by the Chinese and called fire-medicine (huoyao), gunpowder is arguably China’s single technological advance of the last millennium that has had truly global consequences.”

Gunpowder incarnates Cai’s obsession with creation and destruction.  In Chinese culture, gunpowder is both a substance for healing and combustion.  For Cai, personally, it emblematizes Taoist concepts of yin and yang, male and female, birth and death, poetry and violence.

Gunpowder and explosions also generate a psychological energy all artists must tap: the irrational.  As Cai comments: “My fixation on this material comes from something fundamental…  Artists have always been attracted to and [been] in awe of unpredictability.  Sometimes, these qualities can be social or conceptual.  But sometimes they are very physical, biological, and emotional.”

Cai uses other objects to produce similar antinomies in his work.  For example, in his “rectified ready-made” à la Marcel Duchamp, entitled Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows, Cai has suspended an excavated wooden fishing scow from the ceiling and shot its hull full of hundreds of arrows.  For Cai, the arrow also invokes a dual metaphor of creation and destruction.  In a caption for the sculpture, he explains that while arrows may pierce and kill, Cai also views them as metaphoric acupuncture needles that heal and salve.

In a sly dig at his American audience, the sculpture’s title alludes to a Chinese legend about a general who defeats enemy troops by fooling them into shooting 100,000 arrows into dummy boats filled with straw men.  The crafty general then retrieves the arrows for re-use in a later battle.  It’s a classic folktale about a heroic trickster, and Cai explicitly relates it to China’s besting the West at its own game of capitalist manufacture.

One of Cai’s most crowd-pleasing sculptural installations also makes use of the arrow as weapon and medical tool.  Inopportune: Stage Two involves eight gorgeously ferocious faux-tigers—so realistic that they could be exhibited at The New York Museum of Natural History.  (In a satisfying and subtle play on materials, Cai has used dyed sheep’s hide for his tigers.)  Each tiger is obsessively detailed, down to his bared canines and furry little penis.  Each hangs from the ceiling on invisible nylon line and bristles thickly with white-feathered arrows shot by an invisible enemy.  Frozen in various poses of suffering and menace, the tigers look like writhing porcupines or hedgehogs, but with much bigger teeth and claws.

The effect is highly theatrical.  One of the tigers crouches on a large, glaringly fake boulder.  From behind, it’s clearly a stage prop.  While the installation’s caption refers both to a 12th century Chinese folk tale about a heroic killer of man-eating tigers and the September 11, 2001 attack on New York City, few viewers bother to read it.  The tigers are so full of pathos and rage, and the sculptures have so much charisma, we don’t need explanations.  We can feel their powerful emotions on our own, unmediated by words.

Still, gunpowder is Cai’s most persuasively conceptual substance.  He uses it in two ways.  As Munroe notes, “explosives are central to [Cai’s] signature gunpowder drawings, which are made by laying gunpowder and fuses on fibrous paper and igniting them in a blast that creates charred residue of the original matter.  Gunpowder is also essential to Cai’s explosion events, which are site-specific pyrotechnic displays, often on a monumental scale.”

Cai articulates an appealing contrast and connection between his half-cerebral, half-visceral public explosions and his gunpowder drawings, which often serve as both preparatory sketches for his events and post-explosion documentation.  “Large-scale outdoor explosions bring connections to the cosmos, nature, society, glory, and heroic sensation,” Cai observes, “and this kind of allegorical sensation is incomparable.  What the indoor work provides us with is a physical interaction, an intimacy, and the complexity of delicate emotions in a serene atmosphere, which is very different from the outdoor works.”

Another feature of Cai’s conceptual heritage involves his urge to elucidate.  He brushes aside the old canard that pictures are worth a thousand words.  Mixing West and East, video, site-specific installations, works on paper and canvas, performance and event art, land art, and gallery objects, Cai revels in—and tirelessly annotates—his virtuosity across a remarkable range of art forms.  This can be a risk for someone who hasn’t trained as a writer or speaker.  Indeed, visual ability often correlates with inarticulateness.

Cai’s chattiness, however, and his complex and sometimes faux naïf references to Taoism, Maoism, Buddhism, terrorism, and the Cultural Revolution are always striking.  Unfortunately, his metaphysics and ideological pronouncements are not nearly as convincing as his protean imagination or his expertise with form.  In fact, it’s hard to think of another contemporary artist whose “gift and gab” diverge so problematically.

The show’s spiritually suggestive title—I Want To Believe—invokes clumsy big ideas that sometimes enhance, but just as often detract from, his beautiful drawings, sculptures, and excitingly staged events.  Indeed, the show’s title presages many moments when a viewer might wish Cai would let his work speak for itself.  What does Cai really want to believe in?  God?  The Cultural Revolution?  Chinese nationalism?  Space aliens?  Too often, Cai’s sounds incoherent, rather than intentionally ambiguous.  It’s not clear Cai’s work really benefits from so many half-baked metaphysical claims.

Take, for example, his explosion event entitled Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9, which he arranged in Germany at a military base in Hannover-Münden in 1992.  On 15,000 square meters of land on the base, Cai had crews excavate three, huge concentric circles and eight transverse lines in the form of shallow troughs.  Feng shui, with its magical, geomantic formulations, dictated the design.

The troughs were filled with water and Cai then arranged for explosive charges of gunpowder to be placed alongside the troughs.  Before setting off his explosion, Cai parked himself in the center of his newly modified landscape and connected himself to an electrocardiograph and an electroencephalograph during the performance.  He also set up a seismograph to record the geological tremors his explosions triggered, as well.

Cai’s contends this explosive event was cathartic, an exorcism of what he assumes is the military base’s negative karma or qi.  Setting aside the question of whether military bases or activity are always a priori bad things, the notion that an artistic performance can magically clear away unpleasant history seems childish, at best.  The military base remained a military base, even after Cai’s event.  No casualties rose from the grave.  No armies marched home.  Despite the veiled suggestion in the piece’s title (“fetus movements”) of Cai’s or the Earth’s spiritual re-birth, the nine-second explosion produced no miraculous babies from either participant.

Perhaps Cai meant his event to be ironic or satirical.  Perhaps he merely meant call attention to the evils of militarism.  Certainly, the seismographic recordings of the earth and the medical recordings of Cai’s bodily reactions are quintessentially “cool” concepts.  Rhyming seismic tremors with brain waves and heartbeats carries a tangible aesthetic charge.

Still, Cai’s justification for his poetic showmanship risks pretentiousness.  A viewer might also wonder how Cai gained permission from the German military to stage his event, what they thought about his attempt to “cleanse” the base’s presumed taint, and whether their collaboration didn’t somehow negate or disable the explosion’s social medicine.

More troubling is the show’s central installation, Inopportune: Stage One. Unfortunately, this installation and its accompanying video are two of the weakest works in Cai’s retrospective, although the catalogue features a two-dimensional rendering of Inopportune: Stage One on the cover, and Thomas Krens, The Guggenheim’s director, praises it as the best use he’s ever seen of the museum’s famous rotunda.

Occupying the entire atrium from top to bottom, the installation purports to be about car bombings. Cai has staged the sculptural installation almost as sequences in a comic strip.  It makes use of nine white Chevrolets whose interiors Cai has removed. Each car represents another frame in the strip. The first white Chevrolet sits on the ground floor of the atrium, before any “bomb” has gone off.

The next seven cars, daringly suspended in a rising trajectory, hang from stout steel cables anchored to the atrium’s ceiling eight stories above.  The force of the imaginary car bomb appears to flip the car through a complete, 360-degree rotation and throw it upwards to the rotunda’s top.  Inside each of the remaining cars, except the last, a symbolic explosion—in the form of a starburst with optic rods as arms—sparkles with varying flash patterns and in different colors (red, blue, green, and yellowish-white).

Miraculously, the final “episode” shows the same white Chevy (the ninth car) having landed perfectly intact eight stories higher than before, at the top of the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp.  The computer-controlled starburst has vanished.  The ninth care looks identical to the first.  It’s as if the car had never been bombed.

Down below, on the rotunda’s ground floor, where the first frame of the car bomb sequence starts, Cai has set up a video screen showing a simulated car bombing in Times Square.

Showy, and technically inspired, Inopportune: Stage One aestheticizes violence and terror in a profoundly inadequate fashion.  Anyone who has been the victim or witness of a car bomb knows the fire, smoke, body parts, suffering, and fear are nothing like the etherealized apotheosis Cai has faked at the Guggenheim.  How can this installation possibly serve as adequate response to—or coherent provocation about—terrorism?

Worse, the accompanying video screen, with its prettified fireworks digitally superimposed on traffic footage of Times Square, feels vaguely threatening and aggressive.  Cai’s catalogue obbligato does not reassure.  “I can imagine the methods used and the mental state of the suicide bombers,” he admits.  “Before igniting an artwork, I am sometimes nervous, yet terrorists face death unflinchingly.  Along with sympathy we hold for the victims I also have compassion for the young men and women who commit the act.  Artists can sympathize with the other possibility, present issues from someone else’s point of view.  The work of art comes into being because our society has this predicament.  Artists do not pronounce it good or bad.”

Cai’s pretensions to disinterested morality here, that art floats above the fray, and that the artist must “present issues from someone else’s point of view” directly contradict his expressed desire elsewhere for social transformation and his affinity for Maoist notions of art as righteous propaganda.  Indeed, Cai seems disingenuous.  Neither piece depicts car bombing from the point of view of the car bombers.  We learn nothing about the lives, motivations, or fates of car bombers or Islamic terrorists from either work.  In fact, people don’t figure at all in the installation—a significant cop-out.

The purely mechanical imagery allows Cai to evade his own self-confessed obligation to enter into the consciousness of someone else, even if such identification might seem abominable or unbearably painful.  Instead, Cai seems to be exploring his own child-like delight in explosions and destruction, and what appear to be deeply ambivalent feelings about the West.

Perhaps Cai hits his lowest point, however, in the apologia he offers for his explosion event entitled The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, which he staged at the Hiroshima Central Park near the A-Bomb Dome in 1994 and in his explosion series, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, staged in various locations—ranging from nuclear tests sites in the American Southwest to New York City—during 1996.   All these events involved explosions designed to produce miniature nuclear mushroom-like clouds.  The audacity of setting off such an explosion at ground zero in Hiroshima is breathtaking.  Of course, if the Japanese didn’t object, how can an outsider?  Still, it feels as if the act verges on the sacrilegious.

What is truly hard to swallow is Cai’s commentary on these events.  He claims that “the mushroom cloud constitutes a beautiful, monumental image… It is the visual creation that symbolizes the twentieth century, overwhelming all other artistic creations of its time.  It will continue to have a powerful effect in the centuries to come.”  Like Oppenheimer, who expressed his awe and terror at the first nuclear cataclysm via his famous quotation from The Bhagavad-Gita—“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds!”—Cai has reacted deeply to the biggest “explosion event” of all.  But Cai seems to have missed the true significance of nuclear weaponry entirely.

To gloss the invention of the atom bomb as an “artistic creation” is grotesquely irresponsible, even if it were only intended half-sincerely, as an art-world provocation.  Cai appears to have a sneaking Nietzschean reverence for raw power, not a pretty sight.  Are successful artists now so surrounded by a coterie of reverential museum curators, self-interested gallery owners, and over-awed collectors that no one urged Cai to re-think his stance?

In any case, even from the purely aesthetic point-of-view, the mushroom cloud series are relatively lame—at least on video—and compare unfavorably to much of his other public performances such as Project To Extend The Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10.  For this event, Cai had volunteers lay gunpowder/firework fuses in the arid hills beyond the western end of the Great Wall and filmed the scintillating explosive result: a brief, sparkling dragon that shoots across the night-dimmed landscape.  His Black Rainbow: Explosion Project Valencia, during which Cai set off daytime fireworks that emitted an arc of thick, black, mournful smoke, partly in response to the Madrid train bombings of 2004, is also considerably more powerful, emotionally and formally.

Cai’s stunning related gunpowder drawing, Black Fireworks; Project for IVAM (IVAM being the acronym for the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern), is a reminder of his artistic gifts.  In fact, Cai’s gunpowder drawings are his least heralded, but perhaps most beautiful and accomplished work.  While the museum crowds spend more time with the medium they’re most socialized to watch—the televisions (showing looped videos of Cai’s explosion events) placed here and there along The Guggenheim’s ramps—Cai’s most enduring work may be, paradoxically, his most traditional.  His drawings are also his quietist.  They demand an old-fashioned one-on-one communing with a highly wrought object.

Black Fireworks: Project for IVAM is, like many of Cai’s drawings, quite large and assembled in a series of beige panels linked together in a giant Chinese screen.  Unfortunately, given the narrow ramps at The Guggenheim, there isn’t enough space to stage many of screens.  In an effective substitute, however, Cai has installed Black Fireworks: Project for IVAM on three sides of an alcove.  The 15 panels of this work, each taller than a man, overpower the viewer.

Cai’s drawing excitingly straddles the porous divide between figuration and abstraction.  To the left, a scary, black, castle-like structure looms, perhaps representing the towers at Valencia’s center where Cai set off his black rainbow fireworks in 2005.  Reaching towards the “castle” is a biomorphic tentacle or filament, vaguely resembling the arc of firework smoke Cai set off in the middle of the city.

A cluster of black starbursts inside white spheres float in the central panels.  They might be magnified individual black explosions, giant floating dandelion seeds, or huge cellular organisms photographed under a microscope.  On the right-hand side, gunpowder residue almost completely darkens the panels.  It looks as if a sinister charcoal mist, punctuated by intense droplets of blackness, is gradually bleeding through the paper.  Here and there, through the gloom, some of the central panel’s biomorphic pods, with their white spheres, appear dimly.

The drawing is intensely moody, creepy, and science-fictionish.  It also exudes a tremendous sadness and conveys, as none of Cai’s conceptual verbiage does, a refreshingly intimate emotion.  The retrospective’s final installation, Reflection—A Gift From Iwaki, articulates a similar melancholy, although in a more public and complex voice.  Like Cai’s San Jo Tower, this installation is the product of his on-going relationship with a Japanese coastal village in Fukushima.

In one corner of the enormous exhibition room, a small video shows a crew of Japanese men digging up a wrecked, 19th-century fishing vessel long buried beneath the beach.  Later, the men take a break for lunch and boil vegetables, in what looks like miso broth, over a makeshift bonfire.  The spectacular results of the boat’s exhumation, careful disassembly and freightage to The Guggenheim—all documented in the video—act as the bravura finale to Cai’s show.

The enormous vessel, visibly rotted, abraded by sand, stained by saltwater, and still smelling faintly of decay and brine, extends the entire length of the room.  It dwarfs and overawes the viewer.  In the hold, instead of fish, Cai has unexpectedly poured thousands of broken white plates and “blanc de chine” statuary of a “popular Buddhist deity Avalokitsevara,” a figure of mercy.  Made in Quangzhou, China, which has manufactured export ware for Europe since the 18th century, glazed porcelain derives from two terrestrial substances: clay and sand.  Cai brilliantly extends the metaphoric use of these primal materials and the cultural properties of broken “china” by mounding the shards into drifts and dunes much like those which covered the boat in its original resting place.

For once, Cai’s concepts and explication don’t overwhelm their embodiment. Despite its cracked timbers, this boat carries an immense and satisfying cargo on many levels.  The boat is both public and personal, an object and a stand-in for the human body.  Indeed, Cai treats it with such tenderness that it almost seems a symbol of the artist, himself.  (In fact, boats recur throughout his work.)  Thus, Reflection—A Gift From Iwaki can deliver potent metaphors about the ravages of time and bodily decrepitude; real and meretricious spiritualities; economic and historical ironies; and the power of the imagination to transport us from the mundane to the eternal and back again, transformed.

There is sweetness, too, in the acknowledgement of the collective voluntary drudgery (the “gift” in the piece’s title) necessary for Cai to complete this project, a modest social transformation that reverses Auden’s equation.  While art may not change the real world, in other words, reality does instigate and enable art.  If Cai let all his work incarnate its messages as organically as this beached behemoth—which the commerce of international art has washed ashore at The Guggenheim—his art would speak more wisely than he can, himself.


About Malcolm Farley

Writer, Photographer, Poet, Imagineer
This entry was posted in Art Reviews, Prose and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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