Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim
Cars hurtle through the space of the Guggenheim Museum.
99 ravenous wolves race along the ramp.
Snap, Crackle, and Pop
By Charles Giuliano
April 4, 2008
“Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe”
The Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street
212 423 3500
Through May 28
Spectacle- That which is exposed or exhibited to public view, particularly if it is held worthy of unusual notice. 1. A grand display or exhibition, pageant, parade, show, especially a stage-play with elaborate scenic effects. 2. An unwelcome or deplorable exhibition, a painful sight; as the spectacle of a ruined man.
Spectacular- Of or pertaining to a spectacle, characterized by a grand scenic display, as, a spectacular review.
The exhibition by the Chinese born artist ( 1957) “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe” which fills the ramps and most of the ancillary galleries of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, through May 28, evokes all of the nuances of the term spectacle and its modifier, spectacular.
We have opted to begin a discussion of the installation and range of work from numerous stuffed animals, flipping cars suspended in the central space with flickering appendages of lights, enormous drawings resembling Chinese calligraphy and landscapes but executed by controlled use of explosives, a warren of social realist clay sculptures in varying states of execution and disintegration, and areas for viewing videos of globally produced fireworks displays as performance events, with precise definitions of related terms. The works are intended to evoke a wow reaction from slack jawed visitors gawking and gaping at this, well, truly “spectacular,” in every sense, exhibition.
But, as with an earlier, large scale installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, including several flipping cars in the museum’s largest space, it provokes one to reflect on the difference between art and spectacle. Just how is one distinct from the other and what happens when the boundaries are blurred? It is rather like viewing one of the late films in the “Star Wars” saga, or a Chinese based action film like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” in which fighters leap over buildings and dance through the tree tops engaging in mortal combat. Despite “spectacular” special effects one is left with the gnawing sense of doubt as to the depth of the experience.
Similarly, while perambulating the ramps of the Guggenheim, I felt like one of Pirandello’s characters in search of an author; a plot, or any real sense of meaning and insight above and beyond what filled the eyes.
These misgiving are exacerbated by efforts to understand in proper perspective and proportion the aspects of a culture remotely different from the paradigms of Western art. The fascination and wonder of the Orient evokes a kind of suspension in the norm of critical process. Being on unfamiliar terrain, rather than entangle in difficult and divisive issues, there is a tendency to grant a free pass to the creator. To accept the spectacle and invest it with ad hoc meaning in a manner that, arguably, one would not allow such latitude to the critical analysis of a Western artist of spectacle, say, Matthew Barney. The meaning of Barney’s work may be similarly esoteric but it is a less politically correct terrain to navigate.
To properly take on and critique the work of Mr. Cai is far more daunting. To get a proper fix on the work such as “New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard,” the first version of which was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999, with its range of life-size, social realist sculptures executed by a team of Chinese artists and artisans, requires some understanding of the agit-prop of the Maoist era. The project was originally created in 1965, reproduced widely in China, and reflects its cultural revolution. Recreated today does it retain its original intentionality of exposing the crushing repressions of the ruling class before the revolution? Or, is it now being served up, with some irony, as an artifact of academic, political art. Is the fact that the figures are allowed to crumble and decay meant as a subversive spoof of its initial aspects as propaganda? Just where does the artist position himself along the fault line of an art form that is embedded with the tragedies and atrocities of Mao and the purges of the Gang of Four?
What to make of the seven white cars flipping and careening down from the top of the rotunda of the museum? From these sedans are spikes of flashing lights suggesting some kind of multiple vehicle crash and explosions. There is little argument with the virtual impact and sense of wonder at how the installers managed to rig these elements into place. Recently, we discussed the complex and challenging installation of this work at Mass MoCA with its director of installations, Richard Criddle. It represented one of his greatest achievements and the recreation of the piece in the Guggenheim represents an even greater degree of difficulty. While this is a great task for an art museum, arguably, this is not so daunting in the context of a film production or theme park. So what is quite stunning in one context is just routine business in another. This only enforces the ambiguity of the boundaries between fine art and spectacle.
On the ground level of the museum is a long wall dedicated to a multi projector video of a float with exploding fireworks cruising through Times Square at night. Here the conflation of art, film/ video and special effects is most explicit. It intrigued and puzzled me in the Mass MoCA show and no less so again at the Guggenheim.
Winding around the rotunda in one segment of the ramp is a double line of 99, life like, rampaging wolves. Their muzzles gasp for breath with snarling teeth and wagging tongues seemingly panting for air as an expression of extreme exertion. At the end of this headlong charge of angry wolves they come crashing into a plexiglass wall. Again, while fascinating to encounter, well, what does it mean? Surely there is a metaphor but it was not readily apparent. This is a similar response to the group of stuffed tigers hurling about pierced with numerous arrows. Beyond the obvious visual impact the meaning and interpretation of the experience is obscure.
The response to the several video monitors displaying the fireworks performances and demonstrations of how they are used to create “drawings” is more accessible. We are more accustomed to responding to fireworks as a joy in and of itself as bursts of color, sound, fury and light. On the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, a display of fireworks is little more than an expression of celebration. We don’t look for meaning beyond the spectacle. Of course, in China, where it all began centuries ago, we may ascribe to it deeper and more traditional layers of meaning. Through the context in which it is presented we are expected to concede to the artist that this is art and not just pyrotechnics.
In a time of pervasive globalization it is always a complex task to sort out just what is Eastern or Western about contemporary art. While Cai Guo-Qiang is an artist of Chinese birth, training and heritage, he is also clearly fluent with Western ideas and culture. Again, just where are the edges and boundaries? Surely this becomes ever more problematic as artists ply their trade in a global arena. Mass MoCA, for example, has a current exhibition “Eastern Standards, Western Artists in China.” It focuses on American and European artists who have spent time in China and created works based on that influence and experience.
During this past winter I enjoyed viewing a number of Japanese films by a variety of directors particularly works by Akira Kurosawa. This project included a number of classic Samurai films. When I first viewed these films some forty or so years ago they seemed entirely foreign and specifically Japanese. Seeing many of them again it is more possible to sort out the degree to which they reflect traditions of Japanese culture, and the extent to which Kurosawa, and the more recent filmmakers, were greatly influenced by Hollywood. This was increasingly evident as the career of Kurosawa progressed. At the other end of the spectrum, what to make of “Kill Bill?” Just how does one sort out the East vs. West issues in the two part epic of Quentin Tarantino? What happens when you reverse the process and a Hollywood director opts to make a kitschy Samurai film? Do we then discuss how Kurosawa has influenced Tarantino? It all becomes rather murky which is arguably why those films are so interesting.
So whirling down the ramp of the Guggenheim there was the dichotomy of feeling entirely seduced and engulfed by the spectacle as well as confused and disoriented by an urge to find essence and meaning. To both surrender to the experience and also resist being taken in. With these reservations it is also important to state that few artists have ever more thoroughly commanded and used to greater impact the complex and demanding space of the Frank Lloyd Wright building. In that sense alone this is one of the most successful installations in the history of the Guggenheim. So this was both a triumph for one of the foremost international, contemporary artists and a truly painful sight.
Copy the link below and paste it into an email, web page or blog to share this article.