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Cai Guo-Qiang : I Want To Believe
By D. Dominick Lombardi

Turning on New York City

The art of Cai Guo-Qiang has captivated New York. There have been other monumental extravaganzas of Contemporary Art in past years, exhibitions that were equally energetic and expansive, but none of the other exhibitions that I've seen in this building had the mass appeal and the accessibility of Cai's show. It’s like a three-ring circus with its beauty, appeal and acrobatics - but it is just those characteristics that make Cai so successful. Whether or not you agree with his methods and appropriations, you can not deny his success. Sure, there is always mystery and confusion in any art form, but Cai's language, his voice, his iconography isn't turning too many visitors off. On the contrary. Cai's art is engaging - it's visibly connecting with people as they weave around and through the art. And the energy here is palpable, strong and oddly positive, even though the basis of Cai's art is destruction, which likens Cai’s art to Mao’s famous slogan "No construction, no destruction." A fact, which is sited by one of the organizers of this show, Alexandra Munroe, in the exhibition's catalog.

Spring Rolls

It would be a mistake to think of Cai as anything but an international force in the art world. There is one very effective quote by Cai in the catalog that is a response to a comment by the critic Li Xianting, who said in the late 1990s that Chinese art was as dispensable as "spring rolls" at the banquet of the international art world. The retort by Cai shows his wisdom, strength and pride. "Previously, (there were often two reasons that) art coming from Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and other non-Western areas was appreciated in the West: first, it was seen as criticism of the artist's own culture or national system; second, it was seen as proving that the artist was studying diligently, seeking to catch up with contemporary Western artistic expression. But these modalities, which have become ingrained in the West, are starting to change. After the Cold War, enthusiasm for non-Western cultures and multiculturalism has made it more difficult for the West to enact its whims, leading to a truly non-Western, multi-polar contemporary culture. Perhaps we are still in some ways the spring rolls at the banquet, but if the spring rolls carry bacteria, they can ruin the entire party."

Next, The World

It is also important to note that Cai is a core member of the creative team, and Director of visual and Special Effects in Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games. This means approximately four billion viewers will see Cai's pyrotechnic skills at both the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies. This will increase the strong links in Cai's work to China, which include among others, gunpowder, calligraphy and social realism. But it's more specific than that. Cai is also quoted as saying about his birthplace Quanzhou, "More than (all of) China, my hometown has informed my work. I am interested in mining the microcosm of my culture for symbols that can be universally understood." Cai's early years is where Munroe points to the artist's first fascination with the supernatural. This interest in the otherworldly also gave Cai a leg up on the universal language/angle. And as destructive as his art is in process - physically and symbolically - it can also have a therapeutic effect. This is no more apparent that in the 1996 series of photographs collectively titled "The Century With Mushroom Clouds." In each photo, Cai picks an American vista as diverse as the Nevada Test Site or Lower Manhattan with the World Trade Center buildings, to the faint remnants of Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake. In these, Cai stands, with back to the viewer, holding a cardboard tube filled with gunpowder in his hand that, when detonated, forms a plume of smoke. The correlation to a mushroom cloud is contrived looking at best, even silly, which makes it darkly humorous, while the linkage to another famous China based self-portraitist Tseng Kwong Chi, who posed in front of the world’s iconic landmarks in an iconic Mao suit, brings to the fore another reference to his Chinese heritage. How much more profound and prophetic these works have become over the past seven years.

Repeat History Too

In 1965, members of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute created 144 life-size sculptures that depicted the oppressed lives of Chinese peasants. These symbols of the abuses of the pre-Revolutionary landlord were employed to clearly illustrate the great improvements to the quality of life in the new era of communism in China. Near the end of the 1990s, Cai asked one of the original sculptors from that 1965 project, Long Xu Li (with the help of nine others), to recreate this work for the 1999 Venice Biennial. (Rent Collection, won Cai a Golden Lion.) Cai again recreates this work for the Guggenheim exhibition, with guest artisans from China. Here, you will see these men and women working on new armatures, even as the works done weeks before are already crumbling. A profound statement about time, transience and perception.

High Art For The Masses

Be assured, we now have at least one more living fine artist who can reach the masses with a vision, an esthetic, and an approach that is inspiring, compelling and most of all likable. However, when assessing the exhibition as a whole, you must first consider the overwhelming visual effect of this show. It is all just too much to bear. It's like seeing an entire action movie in ten seconds. When you first walk in, you are faced with "Inopportune: Stage One," a very large installation of nine ascending cars, most of which are pierced with countless rods filled with computerized lights that spray in a bursting formation. This work - as is often the case with Cai's art - is suggestive of an explosion. A car bomb to be precise. Visit this exhibition and you will see people of every age and background, families, kids with eyes wide - hypnotized by what they are seeing - adults with faces filled with appreciation and wonder - it all hits you from every angle with eye popping effectiveness and it is way over the top. And in a way, that is the point in a lot of his work. You need only look at the abundance of bamboo shaft arrows in each and every tiger in "Inopportune: Stage Two." The countless stuffed wolves that race in a sinuous line toward a glass wall that abruptly ends their sprint and you can imagine this explosive mind that is expanding more quickly than it can possibly control. In a fiery crop circle in "Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9;" or the numerous public explosions that at times can look like lightening under a sporting complex tent as in "Skybound UFO and Shrine;" or the presence of the numerous gunpowder drawings such as "Wolves of The Dark Night: Drawing Experiment for Deutsche Guggenheim" with its almost imperceptible ghostly wolf amidst a sizzling stand of trees and we see a pensive, mature and controlled artist with much more contemplative language.

Believing Is Seeing

These three works or types: "Skybound UFO and Shrine," "Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9," and most of the gunpowder drawings are the works that to me, seems the most connected to Cai's spirit since it combines all of the magic of his esthetic and his technique, yet it leaves a substantive amount of the detail, what could have been preserved and exhibited, hidden and left to be imagined. That wondering, those lost and lofty actions and thoughts push the work far beyond the physical. It's like the exhibitions title - "I Want To Believe," which was taken from a poster that hangs in Cai's studio that shows a lone, shimmering flying saucer. The phrase speaks of purity; a timeless human universal feeling that there is something beyond the known. Anything specific to any belief or tenet is unnecessary, but there needs to be a belief that there is something out there for Cai. Cai's bigness, his boldness, especially in his pyrotechnics, can be seen as an attempt to communicate beyond mere earthlings. Sure, this can begin to sound strange, but I believe, after seeing all the work, all of the documentation, all of the efforts and effects that Cai believes wholeheartedly that believing is seeing. And maybe, believing is all we need.

 
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