Left: A view of a half-demolished wall outside the Rockbund Art Museum with the slogan “Peasants make the city better.” Right: Workers prepare a UFO by Du Wenda outside the museum.


Concurrent with the opening of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Cai Guo-Qiang has invited more than fifty rural engineers to display their homemade submarines, airplanes, and various robotic creations in “Peasant Da Vincis,” the inaugural exhibition of the Rockbund Art Museum. Cai began collecting peasant-made works in 2005 and has traveled extensively through the countryside to document these objects and their creators, whose stories will also be on display. The show runs May 4–July 25.

ALL OF THE PEASANTS will come for the opening reception of this show, including Wu Shuzai, who made a wooden helicopter; he is over seventy years old. He resides in Jiangxi, a very poor mountainous region where Mao Zedong and others fought their guerrilla war. We invited him to fly to Shanghai and it will be the first time he’s ever flown.

When they see their creations in this city, appreciated and talked about by so many people, they should feel esteemed. It will show how they too have made a contribution to the arts in China. Perhaps seeing what others have made next to their own objects will make them curious––they can converse and compare. Some people will think their works are superior, or more extraordinary. For example, a wooden plane that can fly is amazing, but what about a plane just made of steel?

Some of these pieces are not in my collection, but I know the stories behind them and will offer them here. My objective, anyway, isn’t to exhibit my collection but to present the work of these peasants, whose creativity should be realized by everyone. Chinese society is typically regarded as a single entity, but I hope to demonstrate the importance of individuals––not a collective or a nationality.

It’s not important for people to regard these objects as contemporary art. We are using my name and the framework of this new museum to tell these stories, but these objects aren’t necessarily art, in the same way these peasants are not artists. I asked one of them if he considered himself an artist, and he responded, “No, I think I’m a dreamer.” Then I said, “Have you ever thought your plane looks like an artwork? Can you imagine that it is an artwork?” And he said, “When I was making the model it seemed more like art, but when I made the actual plane, it was more like a product.”

Local television news shows will report on this exhibition as if it’s a big joke: “Ha-ha, peasants can make planes and stuff too.” But perhaps some people will feel like we’ve elevated these objects to the position of art and these peasants to the role of artists. Only when the individual is meaningful can a nation be meaningful.

— As told to Lee Ambrozy