North Adams

Cai Guo-Qiang

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)

Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese-born artist with an abiding passion for large, loud explosions. His current exhibition at Mass MoCA is in four parts. Inopportune: Stage One, 2004, consists of nine white Ford Tauruses, installed here in a long room. While the first and last sit on the floor, the others hang from the ceiling, some high enough to walk under. Projecting from their interiors are flashing, internally lit blue, red, green, and orange glass rods, which mimic exploding firecrackers.

A smaller, darkened room contains large screens, visible from both sides, which show a ninety-second video in which footage of another of the artist’s favored Fords is projected onto Times Square traffic. At first this vehicle appears to be just another car driving south, but it soon turns out to be packed with fireworks: Explosions begin, and the car is the scene of a dazzling, deafening pyrotechnic display. Behind the screens is a wrecked car, presumably the same one, filled with exploded firecrackers. Upstairs, Impression Oil Drawing: Bombing Taiwan Museum of Art, 2004, depicts an explosion and is accompanied by another large drawing made with gunpowder. Nearby is Inopportune: Stage Two, 2004, a walk-through landscape diorama containing nine full-size stuffed tigers, one of which sits on top of a stage-set mountaintop. As the tigers crouch and leap, they are pierced by heavy arrows shot from all sides by unseen bowman.

Walking through these installations is like reading a scroll. Just as Chinese painting often presents narratives on long narrow panels, so Inopportune: Stage One and Inopportune: Stage Two tell stories using three-dimensional image sequences. This parallel is made explicit at Mass MoCA by the inclusion of Painting of One Hundred Tigers, 1992–93, a traditional scroll by the artist’s father, Cai Ruiqing, which resembles the pictures sold in upscale Beijing tourist shops.

What exactly are we to make of Cai’s imaginary explosions in Times Square or his parallel between exploding cars and tigers on the run? Looking at Inopportune: Stage One followed by Illusion is like visiting the set of a James Bond production and then watching the movie. And comparing that tableau of contemporary violence with Inopportune: Stage Two in the context established by Painting of One Hundred Tigers readily provokes an allegorical reading of the cars. The Chinese emperors went tiger hunting while our governments worry about car bombings. But compared with bombings in the news, Inopportune: Stage One seems merely an exercise in the aesthetics of violence, little more than a vacuous spectacle.

David Carrier