Cai Guo-Qiang Retrospective at the Guggenheim Review and Interview by Robyn Hillman-Harrigan
Inopportune: Stage I
Inopportune: Stage II
Visionary, rabble-rouser, contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang is the first Chinese artist to have a major retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum. In his artist's toolbox are explosives, gunpowder, yak skin, live snakes, wooden arrows, real cars, life-like replicas of tigers and wolfs, and trenched up sunken ships. Witness the spectacle created by this modern day alchemist. Born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian province during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and trained in stage design in Shanghai. Cai moved to Japan in the late 80's where he was a part of that country's Avant Garde period, and then eventually settled in New York City in 1995. Cai lists among his influences, Taoism, Buddhism, 9/11, mythology, Feng Shui, utopian idealism, Maoism and military history. He is currently in Beijing serving as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the 2008 Olympics and was thus not available to be interviewed. Instead, I caught up with Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art, and head curator of "I Want to Believe" Cai Guo-Qiang's Mid-Career Retrospective.
Project to Extend The Great Wall of China by 10,000 meters
Borrowing your enemy’s Arrows
I asked Ms Munroe to describe Cai, the man and his art, and tell us what it was like to work with him.
Cai is a very innovative and ambitious artist and it has been quite extraordinary to work with him. I have learned a lot about his working methodology, for which I have great respect. Everything in Cai's world is process. He is an artist who is dedicated to change, for whom nothing is ever static, but rather in a constant state of motion and evolution. I also learned a lot from his approach to exhibition making. He ensures that every aspect of the show, its planning, its catalogue and its public program is a manifestation of the project, interconnected, and related back to the core ideas of the show. It was a privilege to work to with him. "I Want to Believe" is indeed an appropriate title for this large-scale exhibition, which fills all levels of the Guggenheim's impressive Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. When viewers enter the museum, they are instantly griped by Inopportune: Stage 1. Nine cars spiral upwards, from floor to ceiling. The white cars with colorful lights spraying out of them represent a car bomb, yet they are almost cartoonesque and reminiscent of Pop art. They appear more attractive than frightening. Although a clear reference to 9/11, this work according to the artist also alludes to the glamour of Hollywood's car obsession and should invoke a dreamlike beauty.1 This is the essence of ‘wanting to believe,' approaching horror with hope, matching destruction with rebirth, curiosity, and a persistent spirit. It also alludes perhaps, to wanting to believe in the promise of Western democracy, although faced with its many corruptions. Cai frequently represents this opposing duality in his art, "Often people will ask what ties my works together, because sometimes they seem so different from each other. Among other things, conflicts and contradictions embodied in the work is one tie. The very fact that I make little attempt to offer solutions is characteristic of my work. Some artists try to offer resolutions, but I only point to the argument." He elaborates, "If you don't attempt to resolve everything then it is possible to talk about contradictions, difficulties, and obstacles. You can bring these up and address them, but you don't always need to have an answer."2 Americans have been saturated with images of real destruction through the news media and depictions of faux-catastrophe in film. Cai's re-interpretation of these images allow us to look again, without being bombarded with one scene's definitive meaning. Instead of: photo of an accused terrorist = evil, clip of the US president = Good, we can refreshingly remember to think for ourselves and to view the inherent contradictions in an image's meaning, holistically. Jonathan Shaugnessy elucidates this concept concerning Inopportune Stage I and II. Stage II depicts nine tigers, who appear to have just a moment ago been impaled by a barrage of arrows. He explains that,
" By playing with the contemporary viewer's reactions-is this bravery or cruelty, beauty or ugliness?-the work attempts to restore a sense of primal balance between the forces of revulsion and seduction in regard to violence, forces that are often repressed as a matter of social order and conformity."3 Cai also applies this concept to his gunpowder drawings and explosion projects. He first experimented with gunpowder in the mid-80s, wanting to use unpredictable materials. He has said that his favorite moment in the work with explosives is the time after the fuse has been ignited but just before the explosion. Cai explains, "There is a brief moment where energy is moving together before it finally goes in all different directions."4 One of his larger scale explosion events was Project to Extend The Great Wall of China, in which he laid 10,000 meters of fuse in the Gobi desert, beginning at the edge of The Wall. 100,000 people came out to see the explosion and momentary extension, by smoke cloud of this artifact of ancient Chinese Civilization. I asked Alexandra Munroe to elaborate on the significance of Cai's experimentations with gunpowder. Robyn
In Cai's work employing gunpowder and explosions as mediums and in Inopportune: Stage One, by simulating a car bomb, he melds destruction, beauty, fear and release. I would like to hear your perspective on these unorthodox approaches. Is there a reference being made to Hegel's theories, and Maoist ideology? What does his approach achieve?
I don't think Hegel; I don't think that he is so aware of Hegel. Cai is not an intellectual. He is not a scholar or a philosopher in that sense of having read modern philosophy. He is definitely not. But Maoist ideology yes, because he lived through it, intuited something from it, and is replaying that through his art. The core idea there is no destruction, no construction. You have to destroy in order to create. In Cai's world, the actual methodology of his art making is destroying in order to create work. It is also, on a much bigger scale taking Mao's idea to destroy an existing order of cultural practice in order to reformat a new one. Cai, again doesn't take anything for granted, he is not literally destroying modern and contemporary art lineage, but he's ignoring it, which is almost as bad as destroying it. he ignores its inevitability. Instead of assuming its inevitable, he picks and chooses freely from the lineage of modern and contemporary art and intersperses through it a new lineage with factors from ancient and modernist china, popular science and anything that strikes his fancy. In that regard, my interpretation of his work is that it is deeply embedded in Maoism.
I also asked her to elaborate on my favorite piece in the exhibition, Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows. A large wooden boat is floating just below the ceiling. It has been excavated from off the shore of Quan Zhou, pierced with 3,000 arrows, and adorned with a Chinese flag. The title refers to the story of a Chinese general aware that he is about to be attacked by a superiorly armed neighboring enemy. Rather than accept defeat the general loads his boat full of decoy soldiers made of straw and under cover of night sails to the enemy camp. At dawn, the opposing army just glimpsing the boat, attacks it with their great store of arrows. The general is then able to return home, with a stock of the enemy's arrows, which he will use to defeat them in the next battle. AM
This is a very important early work of Cai's that dates to 1998. It was shown in an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art that was presented in New York, at an Asia Society/Ps1 exhibition called Inside Out: Contemporary Art from China. This work like so much of Cai's is based on an ancient Chinese tale. Cai conjures that tale and presents it to the west, as if the west could be threatened by China's overcoming the west, because of garnering Western know how. Just as the Chinese general overcame his enemy by using the enemy's own ammunition to overtake the enemy. So, in a typical and witty way this work is provocative and challenging of the core assumptions of Euro-American supremacy. It is a very typical Cai gesture, that is, highly post- modern, representing a global- era perspective and an agitation against the status quo and presumptions that the West has had about its own position in contemporary affairs.
Another highly interesting installation in the Guggenheim retrospective is the piece New York's Rent Collection courtyard. This is a collection of sculptures that was first presented by Cai at the 1999 Venice Biennial, but that is an appropriation and reinterpretation of a piece called Rent Collection Courtyard. The original was made as a public art work in 1965 by a team of students at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. The original sculptures and the newer versions both depict peasants being forced to work inhuman amounts under the pressure of oppressive pre-Revolutionary Chinese landlords. One of the students who worked on the original, Long Xu Li also worked to recreate the pieces in both Venice and New York. In discussion with Cai and Thomas Krens, Director of The Guggenheim Foundation, Ms Monroe spoke about the meaning of the work, interpreting it as a questioning of the qualitative value that is put on certain styles of art. I asked her to elaborate on this concept. R
I liked the way you spoke about the question of whose art is counted. I think that connects to what you were saying earlier in our conversation about the assumed supremacy of western art.
You have it, What you have said is perfect. To relate it back to what I said a moment ago, it operates on many levels. It is a profoundly conceptual piece, which really has multiple meanings. One meaning, by presenting this work in a contemporary museum setting in 1998 in Venice and in 2008 in New York at the Guggenheim, is to challenge the west and again our assumptions. During the 1960s, certain styles of contemporary art were dominant, conceptual art, minimalism and pop art for example. Our art world was entirely geared around those three movements critically, in terms of what we were exhibiting and in how are tastes were formed. Cai is saying that during that same period half the world was deeply moved and 100 percent engaged with this propaganda form of art based on Soviet Socialist-Realist styles. They were deeply moved by this particular work that was reproduced in hundreds of cities throughout China. It was consumed at a level that Andy Warhol could never even conceive of in terms of his ideas about appropriation in pop art. In that sense, it is a very characteristic Cai work. He is constantly reminding us of other alternative systems of thought that operate in the world. He does not want to replace our systems with those systems but he is constantly reminding us of the multiplicity of perspectives and the multiplicities of histories. R
You have mentioned that process is very important to Cai as an artist; I think that there is real relevance to that approach. His work is provoking thought. It is affecting people on many different levels, which brings me to the next question. I thought it was mischievously appropriate that the yak-skin boat and the river were built at the Guggenheim. When I visited the exhibition, it was amazing to see little children and men in Business suits competing for a chance to ride on the boat AM
That's great. R
It was very peaceful, a break that one could have from the city, just by being on this little river. I wanted to ask you on a more personal level, did you ride in the yak-skin boat? How would you please describe your experience? AM
Yes, I did and it was a very beautiful experience. It is a beautiful work. I love that work. It is completely an unusual way to operate in the museum system, so the shock of that is incredibly wonderful. It is an experience that no one has ever had before, riding a boat in a museum! Just contemplating water and movement as aesthetic elements, process is again referenced. I think it is all very beautiful and a very powerful artistic experience. It was a very popular piece. The last work I want to consider is Reflection-A Gift from Iwaki. This piece consists of a boat that was excavated from the bottom of the sea in Iwaki, Japan by Cai and a team of locally based artisans. It has been filled, and is overflowing with broken ceramic sculptures of a Buddhist Goddess, which were rejected from their intended role as prayer idol, because of their slight imperfections. It confronts the intersection between religion and culture and was made as a collaborative project, again reinforcing Cai's commitment to an interactive art making system.
- In an interview with Jonathan Shaughnessy, Cai responds to a question regarding Reflection: A Gift from Iwaki as follows:
- Shaughnessy: "Reflection and the focus on Iwaki in the Exhibition certainly reveal your collaborative and holistic approach to art making that encompasses the local and specific-by engaging directly with a certain community- in projects aimed at fostering relationships that go beyond geographic and cultural lines."
- Cai: "You have to be very careful though, there is a fine line. You want to avoid doing a cultural exchange or some kind of Environmental activism or whatever it is that concerns you in the work that it references. After all, you are an artist, and in reality art does very little to change the world. If you understand that and proceed with caution, then you don't fall into the pitfall of all of a suddenly trying to fulfill a function that art does not have."5
- In conversation with yourself and Thomas Krens, also about the Iwaki work, Cai comments that he, "Likes people who don't understand contemporary art."6 Part of the appeal of Cai's work is that it does reach those uninitiated into the world of art and art historians alike. What do you make of the aforementioned quotes? Can art change the world?
- (she laughs)That's another big question. Yeah, I think art can change the world. Art changes the world by changing the way people think about the world and progress is made in part by intellectual advancements and by expanding people's minds to comprehend perspectives that they hadn't even known existed before. In that way Cai is presenting us with perspectives, ideas, that I think do reflect a contemporary, geopolitical, psychic and cultural reality that is new to both the Chinese and Westerners. I think that elements of that vision do reflect specific shifts in the world today. Understanding those shifts through art makes as more interesting people. If you are a more interesting person, you can change the world. You think differently, more scopically, and with bigger dimensions. I think art can change the way people perceive and that, in turn can change the world. I don't think it's the purpose of art to do that, but I think art has the capacity to reflect. In that capacity, in that process, things happen.
Cai Guo-Qiang has challenged the perception of both Chinese and Western contemporary art and uplifted our senses, challenging us to experience viscerally the contradictions embedded in the process and product of expression. In his own words: "For me the central thing about my work is having the freedom in which to make art. That's what I discovered early on when I first saw the vitality of Western contemporary art, and that remains the most important point for me- to maintain that freedom from the East, and from the West. For me, above all, no law is law, no method is the method. This is my guiding principle."7
New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard
An Arbitrary History: River