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Ionarts at the Guggenheim: I Want to Believe

Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, 2008, photo by David Heald/Guggenheim Foundation

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The exhibit that everyone, even those friends who are not art-heads, told me to see during this trip to New York is Cai Guo-Qiang's I Want to Believe. It is both a retrospective of the Chinese-born artist's work and a site-specific installation that has taken over almost all of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. At its center is the new piece conceived for the exhibit, Inopportune: Stage One (pictured), which is an ingenious use of the iconic helix-shaped atrium space of Frank Lloyd Wright's problematic building. Nine identical white Chevy Cavaliers, on a pedestal and hung from the ceiling at various elevations, trace a scenario all too familiar in the era of the terrorist: a car parks in the atrium of the Guggenheim, is exploded from within by a blast represented by arcing fiber-optic rays, flips upward and over backwards, and lands on the top level of the rotunda.

The piece is given some context by a video also shown at the ground level of the rotunda, Illusion. On a normal night in Times Square, people are driving and walking, seemingly oblivious to a car that rolls through the scene, lit by a fireball of pyrotechnics exploding inside it. That explosions could be so normal to our lives today as to go unnoticed is at the heart of the almost comic-book levity of the violence in Cai Guo-Qiang's work. It is a medium and approach that is perfectly suited to art in the post-9/11 world, all the more so because he began working with gunpowder and explosions in the late 1980s. His work was not begun as a reaction to 9/11, but in a sense he was ideally prepared to react to those events and to the particular challenges of today's omnipresent conflicts. The artist himself sets out his thoughts about the work shown in this exhibit, in an editorial piece for NY Arts Magazine.

Cai began using gunpowder in the 1980s, for example in Self-Portrait: A Subjective Soul. A video in the exhibit shows the artistic process: assisted by a team of collaborators, Cai attaches little packets of gunpowder in lines and shapes, or spreads it out with a broom over the canvas, paper, or other surface. After the gunpowder is ignited, shadowy images and burn marks remain, which are augmented by the artist with written annotations. All of these qualities connect these works with the most important tradition in Chinese art, the Confucian calligraphic landscape (Cai's preferred formats are, not coincidentally, multifold screens and scrolls). Later, the paper works became plans for actual explosion events, video records of which are also included in the exhibit. To document such ephemeral creations, many of which existed in time only for a few seconds, he sometimes displays scientific records (seismic measurements, graphs of his own heart rate) collected during the event. With the exploding light and resulting smoke of firework-distributed gunpowder, Cai can "paint" the sky with abstract patterns in striking ways, with a kinetic element provided by the wind that recalls the work of Alexander Calder.

Other Reviews:

Roberta Smith, Cars and Gunpowder and Plenty of Noise (New York Times, February 22)

Edwin Heathcote, The blast picture show (Financial Times, March 1)

Ariella Budick, China's Cai Guo-Qiang captures horror at Guggenheim (Newsday, March 2)

Richard Lacayo, The Big Bang (TIME, March 6)

Ed Pikington, New York minutes: Sparks fly at the Guggenheim (Guardian Blog, March 6)

Alexis Wang, Cai Guo-Qiang makes an explosion at the Guggenheim (Washington Square News, March 7)

Carol Strickland, Cai Guo-Qiang has a blast with explosive art (Christian Science Monitor, March 14)

Todd Jatras, Floating Cars Take Over Guggenheim (Wired, March 17)
The other side of the coin here is preservation, the natural obverse to destruction, which is the focus of many of the large-scale installation works in the show. In Reflection: A Gift from Iwaki (Smithsonian, 2004), Cai excavated the wreckage of a wooden ship and filled it with shattered porcelain dishes and Buddhist idols. In the piece that made him a finalist for the 1996 Hugo Boss prize, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, Cai combines the past (sheepskin bags associated with Genghis Khan) with Western fears of rising Asian industry (three noisy Toyota engines). In An Arbitrary History: River (Lyon, 2001), visitors are invited to ride in a yak-skin raft down a bamboo watercourse, viewing art pieces with live animals in them. (Most of the takers on this offer are children, and in general this exhibit is great for kids.)

The most profound pieces in the show deal with the issues of both preservation and destruction, in a sense, as part of the confrontation with, and simultaneously embrace of, totalitarianism. Head On, originally conceived for the Berlin Guggenheim, shows a pack of replica wolves running toward an invisible wall (set at the same height as the Berlin Wall), beginning on the ground and then lifted through the air, only to crash into the plexiglass barrier and tumble back to the ground. In Inopportune: Stage Two (2004), replicas of nine tigers (the number and the title recall the exploding car piece) are pierced with arrows like pincushions, at first eliciting sympathy and then raising questions about the cartoonish depiction of violence (also evoking the taxidermy sources of Henri Rousseau's animals).

Both Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard (1999 Venice Biennale) and Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows (2000) deal with episodes in Chinese history, the first contemporary and the latter farther in the past. In the former, adapted specifically for New York, soft clay replicas of a famous Chinese communist propaganda piece are recreated, showing the suffering of heroic Chinese peasants under tyrannical warlords. A work in progress, to the point that tools and materials are left strewn about the exhibition space, the figures gradually dry, crack, and crumble to pieces, a reference perhaps to "finishing" element of time in some works of Marcel Duchamp. Even with Stephen Spielberg and artist Ai Weiwei pulling out of the artistic efforts to stage the Beijing Olympics this summer, the participation of Cai Guo-Qiang (along with film director Zhang Yimou and composer Chen Qigang -- reportedly not Tan Dun) will make the games of significant cultural interest, although the fear of the Chinese regime's interest in the event as propaganda must also be noted.

Cai Guo-Qiang's I Want to Believe will be at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in Manhattan, through May 28. At the same time, the smaller From Berlin to New York: Karl Nierendorf and the Guggenheim (through May 4) is also well worth seeing, a collection of paintings and other works at the nexus between post-figural work and real abstraction.


Mark Barry said...

Nice post Mr. Moderator. I've been trying to get up there to see it and the National Academy (I'll wait for the Invitational)

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Mark! Sorry to pull the rug out from under you...

Mark Barry said...

No problem, I like to share.

June Butler said...

This is an exhibit that I'd like to see very much, and I do love the Guggenheim. The last time I was there, I saw the Richard Prince exhibit, which I loved. I believe it's the first art show that I ever went to that made me laugh out loud.
I do amateur art show reviews, too. "Fools go...."