Civilization and Savagery: Plasticity and the work of Cai Guo-Qiang

Sunday I went to brunch with my brother and his girlfriend, who are approaching their one-year anniversary but, as they will tell you, still like each other enough to make out at any available moment (hooray). We had a delicious brunch at Regate, funded by my comparatively wealthy and generous brother, complete with unlimited mimosas and bloody marys. I had poached eggs with capers, tomatoes and feta, so I opted for the spicy bloody marys which were quite good.

After brunch we traveled uptown to the amazing Cai Guo-Qiang exhibit at the Guggenheim. This was my third trip to the Guggenheim in six months, and I anticipated being a bit Guggenheimed-out. Instead, I was really excited by the work I saw.

We waited in line outside for about 15 minutes before we could even enter. The museum was packed. When we entered, we saw a series of white cars hanging from the ceiling to the floor, penetrated with shafts of dancing lights. The series of cars was hung so that each car was like a still in a film of a car bomb going off (like viewing all the stills together in a line). This deconstruction of film and its manifestation as sculpture was made all the more awesome by the scale of the installation, which took up the entire atrium, and by the physics of the thing: there were multiple cars hanging from the ceiling filled with vast networks of cables and computers controlling the light display.

But this piece was just the beginning of a series of serial pieces that combined large-scale thinking with an incredible sense of space/installation. We next encountered a group of stuffed tigers completely shot through with arrows. My brother’s girlfriend found these offensive, but I thought that the piece commented well on the violence done to endangered species; moreover I didn’t think it was more offensive than making a film of a car bomb going off into an aesthetically pleasing gallery installation. On the plaque for the tigers I read the pithy phrase, “civilization and savagery.” This contradiction was a good one for characterizing most of the work in the exhibition, which often commentated on the use of violent methods by civilized society or by those attempting to bring about a more civilized society.

More pieces involving arrows followed and I tuned out a bit until we came to a room with multiple small installations including a bag of live snakes, a birdcage hanging from the ceiling filled with live canaries, a clear curtain with anatomical drawings studded with acupuncture needles, and a boat filled with red tissue-paper lanterns in nontraditional shapes like airplanes, houses, and cars. The largest piece in this room was a river-shaped pool through which one could row a small hide vessel. Excited by the idea of participatory art, the three of us waited half an hour in a line of mostly children for our turns in the boat. If you go to the exhibit, I cannot recommend the trip highly enough, even if you must wait for a long time.

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In the vessel, rowing through the gallery filled with people looking at the art from the normal perspective, one’s relation to viewing changes significantly. First, one becomes part of the piece in that one is viewed by the other gallery members as a “live animal” in the way that the snakes and birds are. One operates the piece, making it work for the viewers. At the same time, one views the viewers as a separate piece, perhaps titled “Viewers at an Exhibition,” so that who or what is on exhibit shifts.

Second, moving through the gallery space by rowing a small boat through water changes the way that one uses one’s body with regard to the space, thus calling attention to the efforts required under normal viewing conditions. Both the space and time of viewing are disrupted. One uses different muscles when rowing than when walking, and moving through water is different from moving through air. The awkward way one must row the strange little vessel forces one to move slowly through the gallery, even if one tries to go quickly. When one leaves the river, one’s spatiotemporal relation to the gallery has changed irrevocably.

After this experience, we went slowly to the next tier in the winding gallery and saw wolves hurling themselves at a plexiglass wall, a commentary on civilization’s tendency to happily build violent walls between countries (Berlin, China, Israel). Cai’s fascination with the violence of wall-building was repeated in another piece in which he “expanded” the Great Wall of China by setting off fireworks along a ghost path succeeding the current wall, making a dragon-like wall of smoke and fire.

Continuing upwards, I got stuck for a long time with a group of others who were watching the “how these things are made” video. It was fascinating and involved lots of things exploding. This was a preview to the bulk of the rest of the exhibition which comprised 2-D works of exploded gunpowder on paper. Although some of these works began as figural drawings using black brushstrokes of gunpowder like the black ink of Chinese calligraphy, the lighting of the gunpowder disfigured the figures leaving the representation almost unrecognizable in most cases. One could derive a sense of the organic, as many pictures were of natural things like wolves and trees, but the gunpowder introduced a factor of dangerous indeterminacy.

It feels almost trite to comment on the traditional Chinese elements in the work of an artist who works (geographically) on a international scale and comments on timeless human patterns, but these elements are inextricable from the power of the work. For example, in making the gunpowder “paintings,” Cai uses languid calligraphic strokes reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy to mark out long black lines made of one of China’s “great inventions,” gunpowder. The violence of exploding the gunpowder produces an unpredictable, potentially hazardous outcome– as one watches in the videos of how the work is made, Cai employs assistants who quickly damp out the fire after the explosion. The result is often beautiful. These two inventions of “civilized” Chinese society, writing and gunpowder, can produce beautiful texts, but the unpredictable outcome could have been otherwise. The fine line between beauty and violence invades the viewer’s senses.

Another example is the series of life-sized clay figures that depict a violent clash between the wealthy and impoverished. When was the last time you heard the phrase “life-sized clay figures”? The strange phenomenon of the famous terra cotta warriors is haunted by one’s sense of what terrible war-like cunning and violence lies in their history. Similarly, the war-like act of rent collection shows in the faces of Cai’s money-warriors. The violence of class struggle is echoed in the real physical disintegration of the artwork, which is unfired clay and thus subject to the elements as well as the clumsiness of visitors. The unfinished pieces strew the viewer’s path, set up as a work-in-progress complete with buckets of moist clay, notes, plastic coverings and wire forms rather than housed in the comparatively safe little nooks where art is usually displayed at the Guggenheim. The “safety” of the work is compromised, echoing the social dangers the work depicts.

Cai’s pieces reinvigorated my interest in installation art and in how art’s ability to change the viewer’s sense of time and space might affect the way the world operates. I don’t imagine a world without violence (social change, like all action– like all thoughtis violent), but for the agent to be delayed and made to think about his or her actions appeals to me as a method for decreasing the “savagery” in “civilized” life.

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5 Responses to Civilization and Savagery: Plasticity and the work of Cai Guo-Qiang

  1. yesIsaidyesiwillyes says:

    The row-boat thing looks surprisingly long.

    It looks fun too.

    It reminds me to two things.

    The first is not so good: the infernal cloying “It’s A Small World” ride at all the Disneylands (at least I think it’s at all of them).

    The second is the installation, a year or two ago, at some museum in London, of the humongous slides — slides as in double-screaming down you go.

  2. yesIsaidyesiwillyes says:

    It reminds me of two things.

    Geez, sorry about that. I think I got it right this time.

    Anyway, the row-boat thing you report on, and the big slides in London, raise the possibility that someday there’ll be an entire museum as amusement park.

  3. At the “Remember Love” Yoko Ono retrospective I went to in Stockholm in the summer of 2004, there were multiple entrances to the exhibit, one of which was a slide. It was fun.

    And the small world ride came up in conversation while we were there. The cars in the foyer reminded me and Charlie of the light shows at Epcot, so we were already in that frame of mind. Also, the waiting in line outside only to then get inside and have to wait in line again reminded us a lot of Disney World.

  4. Mark L. says:

    Let Rachel and I know when you want to go to the Guggenheim and Rachel can get you in for free.

  5. Kristen says:

    Excellent reporting of more Guggenheim adventures–thanks for sharing the boat ride with us–

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