Beauty and terror
09 May 2010
Nine dangling Chevy metros appear to spin while suspended from the ceiling of the huge Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island, explosions firing. Sympathy for terrorism’s victims as well as “compassion for young men and women who commit the act” of suicide bombing inspired Cai Guo-Qiang, this artwork’s creator.
The China-born, New York-based artist has form in such spectacle. The first exhibition of
Inopportune: Stage One
– this is a copy brought to Australia as the rock star attraction of the 17th Sydney Biennale – was held in Massachusetts, in 2004. This touring version foregoes the multicoloured light rods that pierced the original, bigger cars in favour of single-colour, plain yellow light rods.
Cai – full name pronounced Ts-eye Go-Chung – keeps a studio of about 10 employees on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, and is balancing a delicate aesthetic here between beauty and terror even if, as one critic put it, the car bomb art wouldn’t look out of place in a casino.
For more than two decades now, explosions and gunpowder have been Cai’s artistic hallmarks. Does he think the spectacle might overwhelm his message?
“Sometimes,” the 53-year-old admits through a Chinese translator, “what is difficult is that the audience might overlook the idea an artistic work is intended to convey or even the art itself, being distracted by the sensations from the visual spectacle.
“However, with so many viewers, it is not necessary for everyone to get the same thing.”
So many is right: hundreds of thousands flocked to see Cai’s massive retrospective
I Want to Believe
at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2008 and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain in 2009.
He first came to New York in 1995 on an artist exchange program after nine years spent in Japan. Despite being based in the US now for 15 years, Cai was never really forced to properly study English because he continued to employ Japanese assistants. The Big Apple “made me feel at home, instead of like an alien”.
Yet Cai’s relationship with his homeland of China is complex, while his ideological influences and politics are even less clear, perhaps because they’re not fixed.
Born in 1957 in Quanzhou city in Fujian Province, he was influenced by his calligrapher father’s love of knowledge. “I grew up watching him spending all his money on books and research on history, painting and practicing calligraphy, all the time,” says Cai. “He is honest, sincere, and cautious…
“As his son, besides working hard to inherit his virtues, I have to challenge this kind of overly rational and timid persona.” Hence Cai deliberately sets his art is set in circumstances “difficult to control” using gunpowder.
Sometimes, the art even destroys itself. From his new home in Manhattan, Cai hired artisans to reconstruct a 1965 Chinese Socialist Realist sculpture,
Rent Collection Courtyard
, featuring an evil landlord collecting rent from poor peasants, for the 1999 Venice Biennale. The 108 life-sized clay sculptures of the new Venice Rent Collection Courtyard were designed to crumble over the life of the exhibition.
Even so, the original work’s authors were displeased at Cai’s riff on their “spiritual property”. Was this irony? Perhaps: the question is, ironic at whose expense? China, or the West for its perceptions of China?
Cai turned nine the year the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966. “In some sense, Mao Zedong influenced all artists from our generation with his utopian romance and sentiment,” says the artist, who studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy between 1981 and 1985. “When I was young, I held a certain political ideal and thought this world was starkly black and white.”
Did Mao’s way of communicating the violent class struggle inspire Cai’s own artistic methods? “Its impact on me reflects in the mass appeal of my works, which incudes engaging the general public in collaboration,” he says.
In 1984, Cai began experimenting with his paintings. He began by spraying his works with children’s sparklers, later on taking the sparkler apart and sprinkling gunpowder, igniting fused lines on his canvases to create a charred effect. Eschewing the collectivism of China’s official art system or any local art movement, he left mainland China in late 1986, with a friend’s financial assistance, to base himself in Japan, remaining there until 1995.
There, Cai’s artistic ambition – and the explosions – grew. A remarkable video can be seen on his website www.caiguoqiang.com of his 1993 work in the Gobi desert, for which he laid 10 kilometres of gunpowder fuse from the north-western end of the Great Wall of China, then ignited it, inviting his audience of 50 specially-invited, paying Japanese tourists to drink Chinese medicines before and after the event to calm themselves.
He’d consulted acquaintances at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo before carrying out the audacious project. “They said, ‘Don’t even try to submit your plan for approval!’, because it would have [required] approval by the Ministry of Culture … and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs … and complicate matters with national security,” recalls Cai. “They said: ‘You should just go and do it discreetly and leave immediately afterwards.’’”
Wise words, but if Chinese officials ever caught wind of the artistic spectacle, it doesn’t seem to have counted against Cai – of his own initiative, he joined the bid for the Beijing Olympics, and was rewarded with the job of orchestrating the pyrotechnics display silhouetting the Bird’s Nest stadium. Cai says his team made the opening and closing ceremonies “more internationalised, modernised and artistic”.
after the Guggenheim retrospective, critic Ben Davis says Cai is taken to both represent China and to be an international kind of showman, “staging spectacles wherever he goes and writing his own cheques”. But Davis accuses Cai of glibness and “ideological plasticity”, his installations “grandiose but slightly hollow”.
Is Cai committed to any ideology? “Art is neither the tool to change society, nor a megaphone to deliver political message,” says the artist. “My art often appears to be full of compromises; it may even seem that it lacks principles. For me, what is most interesting is the creative process itself... at the same time, I believe that art may represent the conflict, but not for the purpose of analysing and solving problems.”
Sydney Biennale director David Elliott says the exploding cars at Cockatoo Island are about “the beauty of horror, and the horror of beauty … that there is no effect without cause, no cause without effect, and that if we want to think about terror, it’s no good just being frightened of it … we have to realise that it is something within ourselves, and partly caused by ourselves”.
Where’s the beauty in destruction? Cai puts it this way: “Destruction and construction, yin and yang, positive and negative; the energy is ever exchanging and altering. Just as the moment when fireworks explode – light – and die out – dark – is also the moment of destruction, which often contains the poetic beauty and power simultaneously.”
The artist says it is natural to condemn terrorism, but it is the artist’s job when working to offer a new perspective through art, to “separate himself from his identity as a person”. Sometimes, the artist might play a role, “from the angle of a destroyer”.
Cai was more explicit in the catalogue accompanying the original 2004 exhibition of
Inopportune: Stage One
: “I can imagine the methods used and the mental state of the suicide bombers,” he wrote. “Before igniting an artwork, I am sometimes nervous, yet terrorists face death unflinchingly. Along with the sympathy we hold for the victims, I also have compassion for the young men and women who commit the act.
“Artists can sympathise with the other possibility, present issues from someone else’s point of view. The work of art comes into being because our society has this predicament.
“Artists do not pronounce it good or bad.”
The 17th Biennale of Sydney runs from May 12 to August 1