Critics’ Picks

View of “Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave” 2014.


Cai Guo-Qiang

Power Station of Art | 上海当代艺术博物馆
No.200, Hua Yuangang Road, Huangpu District
August 8–October 26

This exhibition presents a series of Cai Guo-Qiang’s unsettling new works that draw attention to the current environmental crisis facing China and the rest of the world. Many of the pieces, which range from large-scale gunpowder drawings to installations incorporating porcelain, pools of ink, and sculptures, were created specifically in response to the museum’s past as a coal-fired electrical plant, a precursor to China’s present industrialization.

Dominating the main hall is The Ninth Wave, 2014, an installation of ninety-nine life-size animals made of Styrofoam and wool keeled around the sides of a fishing boat from Quanzhou as if they were seasick. A Noah’s Ark reimagined for contemporary China—without much sign of the dove. A drawing made with gunpowder and stencils, The Bund Without Us, 2014, renders a dystopian vision of Shanghai’s landmark Bund promenade, with alligators swimming in the Huangpu River while its banks burn. Head On, 2006, originally commissioned by Deutsche Bank, is a frozen tableau of ninety-nine wolves hurling themselves against a glass wall and limping back to the start, as if representing the cyclical mistakes of history.

Air of Heaven, 2014, however, is the most disquieting piece. To see it, visitors must exit the museum, and they aren’t allowed back in. Inside the dark disused chimney of the plant, three baby dolls sit on a mechanized swing. With their features distorted and heads tilted up toward the chimney’s shaft, they are almost stereotypically horrific. Compared to the previous works’ nuanced commentary, this one comes across as a raw cry for reflection and compassion for Earth’s most vulnerable creatures. A fitting closure, then, to an exhibition displaying a bare critique of the ruthless surge of modernization and its costs.