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PLAYING WITH FIRE
by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
 
Cai Guo-Qiang: "I Want to Believe," Feb. 22-Mar. 28, 2008, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 10128

Cai Guo-Qiang’s work is highly political, hugely ambitious in scale and concept, and guaranteed to please a crowd. Showmanship is his game, and his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum makes the most of it, featuring installations of leaping wolves, writhing tigers, a ship pierced by arrows and a five-story cascade of automobiles. And, of course, he’s the artist who is famous for his fireworks. If Christo is the granddad of this breed of artists, Cai is one of the slickest of its current generation.

Cai, who has had a New York studio since 1995, was early in the Chinese New Wave game. He first studied stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute, emerging in the early 1980s as part of the experimental art world that developed after the Cultural Revolution. He then spent several years in Japan, where he mastered the use of gunpowder to make his signature drawings and outdoor fireworks displays. He really gained global renown in 1999, when he won the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale for his Rent Collection Courtyard, an installation of dozens of life-sized clay figures showing peasants paying tribute to their feudal lord. He was also the curator of Venice’s Chinese Pavilion in 2005.

Tough-minded and focused, the 50-year-old native of the Chinese port town of Quanzhou is now an international art star, equally at home in major museums, international art fairs and biennials, and the big-time mass media. Witness the fact that he is the impresario of the visual and special effects for the 2008 Beijing Olympics this summer, along with movie director Zhang Yimou. Cai’s fireworks expertise, ironically, is U.S.-made -- the renowned Fireworks by Grucci, the top U.S. company in the field and the artist’s longtime collaborator, is producing his computer-controlled Olympics fireworks extravaganza.  

No actual fireworks art is scheduled at the Guggenheim, but Cai’s retrospective has been expertly timed to wring maximum advantage out of all the Olympic hoopla. In the latest example of the "synergy" between the Gugg’s exhibition program and the museum’s global ambitions -- the specialty of outgoing Guggenheim Foundation head Thomas Krens -- the show travels to the Beijing Museum during the games and then to the Guggenheim Bilbao.

The Guggenheim’s new Asian art curator, Alexandra Monroe, makes grandiose curatorial claims for the show in her catalogue essay. She pretty much goes cosmically and dialectically overboard, describing Cai "an artist of the global system. . . [whose] art operates in a framework of contemporary art lineage that links Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein to Arte Povera in Italy and Mono-ha in Japan and to younger artists like Matthew Barney." The curators present Cai as an artist whose "protean" ideas sound impressively profound, ringing dialectical changes from creation/destruction and ying/yang to local/global and ephemeral/eternal.

Such outsize philosophical and moral claims for artworks always arouse suspicion. Here it’s a virtual influence buffet. Reads one wall label, "Cai Guo-Qiang draws freely from ancient mythology, military history, Taoist cosmology, extraterrestrial observations, Maoist revolutionary tactics, Buddhist philosophy, gunpowder related technology, Chinese medicine, and methods of terrorist violence. Cai’s art is a form of social energy, constantly mutable, linking what he refers to as ‘the seen and unseen worlds.’" Okay, got that?

Verbiage aside, what you actually see at the Guggenheim is a kind of madcap theatrical pageant invading the museum’s narrow ramps, downward-slanting runways that restrict and diffuse the effects of many of the pieces. Despite the curatorial claims of profundity, this is what a friend of mine called "Wow Art," a collection of the artist’s most flamboyant installation pieces as well as his nifty videos and a spate of gunpowder drawings.

The exhibition centerpiece, literally, is Inopportune: Stage One, a variant of a 2004 work that was installed at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass. In a stop-motion spectacle, nine white Chevrolet Metros cascade and tumble in mid-air, from the top ramp through the museum rotunda to the ground floor below. The autos are all pierced with ray-like rods dotted with electric lights that pulse with color. The word "inopportune" in the title refers to an "inopportune terrorist event," otherwise known as a car bomb.

At Mass MoCA, the work was installed horizontally in a darkened, airport hanger of a long gallery. It delivered a visceral shock, transforming an image of deadly violence into a seductive vision of terrifying beauty. The Guggenheim’s vertically spinning auto wreck is crowded, theatrically self-conscious and much tamer, yet it still retains the allure of images of destruction. But the "shock and awe" reaction wears off fast, leaving you to consider the engineering feat of suspending the cars over the atrium.

Other installations at the Guggenheim deliver a kind of cultural theme park experience. In Head On, which debuted at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin in 2006, a rather mangy pack of 99 stuffed wolves seem to leap up the ramp and arc over your head. The critters are on a collision course with a glass wall, supposedly meant to symbolize the Berlin Wall. According to the bombastic wall labels, the wolves are on an "allegorical pathway of self destruction, representing the human fallibility of following collective ideology and society’s fate to repeat mistakes."

No tigers were harmed in Inopportune: Stage Two, a group of arrow-pierced stuffed tigers that writhe and twist in a frozen trajectory of death, since the skins in question are painted sheepskin. A modern version of a 12th-century Chinese folk tale often depicted in traditional scroll painting, it’s pure theater. Another legend is interpreted in Cai’s Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows. In a side gallery is an actual antique Chinese fishing boat, bristling with arrows and a fluttering Chinese flag that hangs overhead. The piece is highly dramatic and a sly contemporary political allegory. It illustrates an ingenious military tactic, for which a general with few weapons sent out empty boats in the fog as decoys to draw enemy fire, gaining a whole new stock of arrows that can then be used against his opponents.

The Rent Collector’s Courtyard, situated mid-way up the Guggenheim ramps, is a variant of Cai’s Venice tour de force from 1999, which itself appropriated a 1960s propagandistic sculptural ensemble produced by teams of Chinese sculptors during the Cultural Revolution. Luridly dramatizing the evils perpetrated by a capitalist landlord, this Chinese Uncle Tom’s Cabin in clay is meant to decompose over the life of the current exhibition. It’s like a Seward Johnson art epidemic with political bite. However, this work is too controversial to make it to Beijing. It’s not politic to revisit the Cultural Revolution in such a public forum, even for Cai.

Compared to his hyper-emotional set pieces, Cai’s monochromatic gunpowder and ink drawings speak at a whisper. These ghosts of his explosive acts, their smoky trajectories redolent of traditional Chinese calligraphy, possess considerable charm. But the videos that show exactly how Cai laid out paths of gunpowder and then ignited the explosives are a lot more compelling than looking at the aftermaths. And the alcoves of the museum are not the optimal place to show these delicate memorials.

As Cai has become famous and had access to more elaborate resources, his work has gained grandeur and scale but lost its experimental edge. Most authentic are the videos of his early explosive performances. Their extemporaneous, risky quality is actually more heroic and radical than his glorious, increasingly spectacular public fireworks displays and his timed gunpowder rainbows. Nevertheless the videos of his many site-specific performance pieces are to my mind the most interesting things in the exhibition.

It’s mesmerizing to watch the progression of his 1993 Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, a nighttime performance where a line of fire races across the black desert at the end of the wall in northwestern China, made for what he thought of an audience of "extraterrestrials" who would see it from outer space. Transient Rainbow, a beautiful computer-generated fireworks display that unfurled over the East River in New York in 2002, was the first pyrotechnical event after 9/11, and a supremely sensitive act of sheer celebration. The video of his exploding house in Shanghai records the merging of creation and destruction in a perpetually haunting pyrotechnical event.

The retrospective, which provides a very interesting overview of Cai’s worldwide achievements, is a theatrical event in its own right. And children will love it. Just don’t pay too much attention to those wall labels.


ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and art historian living in New York.