PRINT October 2010


the Rockbund Art Museum and Cai Guo-Qiang

IN HIS RECENT EXHIBITION at Shanghai’s new Rockbund Art Museum, Cai Guo-Qiang included, in addition to a few works of his own, the folk contraptions and bittersweet narratives of nine Chinese countryside inventors, or, as he calls them, “Peasant da Vincis.” Since 2005, the artist has collected the homemade submarines and cobbled-together flying machines of these amateur engineers, and, as the collector, curator, and ranking artist of “Peasant da Vincis,” he deployed their inventions throughout the newly renovated spaces of the museum in his customarily expansive and spectacular manner. Mostly variants on aircraft, watercraft, and robots, these devices coalesced under Cai’s curatorship into a fanciful installation evoking a mythological dreamscape of swooping dragons, swarming dragonflies, and fleeting fish.

One of the few contemporary art museums in China explicitly devoted to socially and politically engaged programming, the Rockbund occupies the site of its previous incarnation, the Shanghai Museum, which was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the Royal Asiatic Society and was once the most active center of academic research in the “Far East.” The museum’s director, Lai Hsiangling, has an acute sense of the Rockbund’s mission as being one of pursuing culture “in the public interest” and “exploring the diverse possibilities for interaction between art and life in contemporary society.”

If Cai’s was the inaugural show for the Rockbund, it was also a first for the peasants, each of whom either lives in the Chinese countryside or was born into peasant circumstances. Some have long been regarded with bemusement or irritation by village neighbors for tinkering with useless gadgets instead of fixing farm equipment like irrigation pumps. But having had their works collected (or commissioned) by one of China’s most famous artists, these peasant inventors found themselves elevated to the status of folk heroes. Invited to the opening of the exhibition, Wu Shuzai, a sixty-nineyear-old man whose never-flown handmade plywood airplane hung (precariously) in the gallery, flew for the first time in his life.

One notes here an echo of the Cultural Revolution, when artists from the academies were sent to the countryside to help peasant famingjia, or inventors, realize their innate proletarian potential as artists in the service of the state (the trained artists did most of the work). In this case, though, Cai’s focus was on individual cases of eccentric creativity—and personal stories of grit and tragedy—which, during the show, were thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of the concurrent World Expo 2010 Shanghai, an extravaganza with an overarching narrative of emerging Chinese globalism. It’s as if Cai’s exhibition of the inventions in his collection represented the preconsciousness of that globalism.

Tao Xiangli, for example, built from secondhand materials a one-man submarine that, when Cai went to see it, was frozen in the ice of a reservoir near Beijing. For the Rockbund show, Cai invited him to make an aircraft carrier. Spot-welded on-site from scrap metal, it occupied the ground floor of an adjacent building, encompassing a marble column—gallery-locked, in a sense. On its deck were rows of small fighter jets folded like menacing origami from thin-gauge sheet metal. Ringing the carrier below deck were more submarines. Meanwhile, inside the dark hull, Cai projected a 1982 film about Soviet cosmonauts, underscoring the kind of stunted utopianism and stubborn optimism one feels from Cai’s inventors. While evoking Chinese mythology, with its dragons that dive beneath and rise above the ocean, the aircraft carrier and its attendant subs are ultimately one Chinese peasant’s nationalistic challenge to the global reach of American power. By contrast, one of the inventors, Tan Chengnian, died when the airplane he built crashed during flight. Cai took the deformed engine and broken exhaust pipes of the plane and fashioned them into a blackened “dragon” hanging above the audience. The afterlife of invention, it seems, is art.

In a Chinese art world dominated by moribund state museums, kunsthalles for rent, vast commercial galleries, and private-collection warehouses, the Rockbund Art Museum, despite its modest spaces, held out the promise in its inaugural show of private-museum professionalism in the service of public imagination. The unorthodox collaborative play among museum, artist, and inventors implies a progressive and critical attitude in which the museum may sometimes confront party-line narratives about the collective growth and power of the new China. But the Rockbund is also part and parcel of China’s effort to revamp itself in the image of a superpower. Situated on the Bund, the museum is largely funded by the corporation responsible for redeveloping that storied thoroughfare, and its opening was scheduled to coincide with the expo, which sought to present Shanghai as “the next great world city.” How well the museum will navigate the line between criticality and boosterism remains to be seen.

Cai Guo-Qiang is a thoughtful artist whose thinking becomes art at the thresholds of public spectacle and myth. In collaboration with the Rockbund, he orchestrated an imaginative space in the public mind where art and invention commingled. The show raised the question of where in China a place may someday exist for eccentric creativity driven by individual will. For now, that place exists mostly in the arts, and the arts—as reflections of contemporary Chinese society—seem welcome at the Rockbund.

Based in Oakland, CA, Jeff Kelley is a critic and independent curator of contemporary Chinese art.