The Cai-Guo Qiang Theory: Every Artwork Has a Reaction

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New York: The Guggenheim museum’s dazzling retrospective of the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is nothing if not an action-packed adventure, running from February 22 through May 28, 2008. The exhibition titled, I Want to Believe is so replete with the echo of explosives and sight of suspended objects and stuffed wildlife that it could be mistaken for the movie set of a martial-arts spy thriller. Maybe, ‘Writhing Tiger, Gunpowder Dragon’?
Through his invigoratingly theatrical and enigmatic works of gun-powder drawings and massive installations, most of which are steeped in Chinese culture and symbolism designed to expose debates of local history and globalization, Cai ignites the concepts of suspended animation, sudden change, violence and self and societal transformation. In Head On, an installation which is embraced by the museum’s spiralling structure, 99 life-size wolves bearing varying expressions of grim agony, stream toward the ceiling and hurl themselves at a glass wall (meticulously replicated in the dimensions of the Berlin Wall), in a moment of electrifying horror. Wolves, for Cai, signify ferocity, courage and loyalty, but this piece suggests group unity and another instance of nature running amok could lead to mass destruction. Despite using the allegory of the beasts galloping toward their extinction to remark on the human tendency as a society to “repeat mistakes”, Cai maintains a feeling of nostalgia toward Maoist and current China in this piece. Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows, the excavated hulk of an old fishing boast turned pincushion by the three thousand eponymous projectiles, dangling from the ceiling echoes the same sentiment. Inspired by the legend of a general who replenished his army’s ammunition by drawing fire to the dummy soldiers, this tale illustrates China’s appropriation of Western “know-how” to further its ambitions as a global power. Given that a fan sets surmounted Chinese flag aflutter it is entirely plausible that the artist is proud of this fact.
These overwhelming and provocative works revitalize Cai’s fascination of pyrotechnics, military history, Taoist cosmology, and methods of terrorist violence by evoking emotion and linking what he refers to as the “seen and unseen worlds”. Compared to the literal explosions of the past, an almost savage veracity and flare bursts forth from Cai’s frozen in motion pieces. As Cai breaches boundaries, freely navigating between Eastern and Western society, he illuminates the grey matter of his topics by “bringing chaos to time, to context and to culture”. Reflecting the fluidity of contemporary culture, Cai’s work takes inspiration from his artist father, the Cultural revolution, Chinese brush painting, as well as using the fire echoes of the French postwar artist Yves Klein.

Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe is a dangerously alluring and volatile exhibition that focuses on physical and metaphysical transformation of a society and individual; how something beautiful can be created from the seeds of destruction. Through his powerful installations, Cai extends a new social paradigm for the art of a global age and delves courageously into grey matter that daunts others.





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