Cai Guo-Qiang

Shanghai Art Museum | 上海美术馆

In his art Cai Guo-Qiang creates a system of poetic analogies by mixing ancient and modern while injecting social commentary and, occasionally, art-historical references. In Dream, 2002, he spread an enormous piece of diaphanous red silk on the floor and deployed four industrial fans to blow air underneath the cloth and set it in motion. The ceiling was festooned with red lanterns evocative of funerary paper forms from Quanzhou (the city in Fujian province where Cai was born), traditionally used in ritualistic cremations to guarantee smooth passage of the deceased to the afterlife. These typically take the shapes of various man-made objects, but in this case the paper had been shaped into an absurd range of things, including cars, trains, boats, battleships, missiles, and fighter jets as well as pianos and washing machines. Seeing those awkward-looking red objects hovering over the sea of rhythmically moving waves of red silk, one had to laugh, both amused and enchanted.

The Net, 2002, comprised the upside-down skeleton of a sunken ship excavated off the coast of Quanzhou, its hull stuck with golden arrows, and a large birdcage shaped like Shanghai’s Longhua pagoda, containing a hundred live canaries; the cage also resembled Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, 1914. The motif of a boat pierced by arrows is familiar from several of Cai’s previous works; here it was augmented by a laptop computer suspended under the boat and available for public use. As the wall panel stated: “Here the birdcage is a net, the boat is a net, the computer is a net, the make-shift ‘bird catcher’ is also a net. And the people have become the target, unwillingly trapped by one type of net for the sake of another.” Like the ship, the computer imposes constraints on its users. We circumnavigate the globe while confined to our homes like caged canaries.

Connecting tradition to recent technological developments was particularly apt in Shanghai—China’s giant gateway to the outside free-market economy. It was here, in fact, that Cai’s fascination with the carnivalesque—known from his earlier works that featured closely monitored gunpowder explosions—reached spectacular dimensions in a fireworks project commissioned by OTV (Oriental Television) for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2001. Although Cai’s fireworks, accompanied by Beethoven’s Ninth, could be perceived as an affirmation of the global economy, as well as of China's aspirations to become a commercial superpower, here the artist managed to subvert their celebratory aspect by combining the video footage with extensive documentation of their manufacture and reception. On display were hundreds of letters, faxes, sketches, and newspaper clippings bearing witness to the bureaucratic red tape behind the APEC extravaganza—an ironic counterpoint to the music’s soaring idealism and the flash of pyrotechnics. The documentation was accompanied by a series of thirteen exquisite drawings executed by exploding gunpowder on rice paper. Like Chinese calligraphy, they recorded the search for the perfect balance between precision and spontaneity, clarity and grace. A similar intent lay behind a series of large oil paintings replicating images of explosions from the video recordings of his gunpowder projects. More slapdash in their execution than the drawings, they marked the artist’s return to the medium that he’d employed as a young man before leaving China in 1986.

For the past two years Cai has been collecting paintings and drawings by the Russian artist Konstantin Maximov (1913–94), who came to China as a teacher in the mid-’50s. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Maximov Project, 2000–present, so far includes about a hundred works, mostly conventional but well-executed portraits and genre scenes with smiling Chinese workers and many young women, to whom the Russian painter must have been particularly attracted. These were exhibited on easels and accompanied by documentation of the Russian artist’s sojourns in China. The collection reflected Communist China’s brief period of artistic flirtation with the Soviet Union, which led to the introduction of socialist realism to the world’s most populous country. Maximov is a forgotten artist and teacher, but he had an impact on Chinese art that was positive as well as negative. Presenting his works, Cai told me, “is like throwing a hand grenade into an idyllic pond.”

Marek Bartelik