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Under the Sign of the Crocodile
Cai Guo-Qiang – A Chinese Art Star in New York

Cai Guo-Qiang prepares a Gunpowder Drawing
on the premises of the Grucci company, 2006, Photo: Maria Morais

This summer, the Chinese art star Cai Guo-Qiang will be having a large one-man exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. In anticipation of the show, Deutsche Bank Art organized a press trip to New York. The itinerary included a visit to Cai's studio and a trip out to Long Island, where Cai creates his explosive works. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf went along and met with black clouds, mysterious crocodiles, and "America's First Family of Fireworks."

On the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
Alessandra di Giusto and Friedhelm Hütte, Photo: Maria Morais

On this particular spring day, New York looks like a dream in Technicolor – as though it had merely been waiting for Cai Guo-Qiang's artwork Clear Sky Black Cloud. The cherry trees are in bloom in Central Park, and vendors are selling hotdogs and ice cream. A crystal-clear, cloudless blue sky presides over the city, and when the light wind subsides, you can already feel the warmth of summer. The clear light makes every color seem more brilliant, even artificial: the garish letters on the cheap imitation Louis Vuitton handbags, the billboards and flags, the yellow of the taxis speeding by. The roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum is walled in by bamboo hedges; crowds of people collect there to stare into the air, armed with sunglasses and cameras, as though they were awaiting the landing of a UFO.

Clear Sky Black Cloud, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, Photo: Maria Morais

Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument is the title of the open-air exhibition that also includes a highly fleeting work of art. Through October, a black cloud appears here every day at exactly twelve noon above the skyline of Manhattan.
When it's time today, it all happens so quickly that we hardly have a chance to blink: a load of gunpowder explodes above our heads in a loud, brief bang, leaving a dark trail of smoke in the sky that spreads like a spot of spilled ink. It dissipates within seconds, as though it had never even been there.

Transparent Monument, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, Photo: Maria Morais

At first, this work of the Chinese artist seems rather unspectacular, but then an initial perplexity gives way to the realization that this temporary sculpture has just burned a hole in the sky for a moment, as though the alleged reality of the beautiful day were nothing more than a projection. And then there's Cai Guo-Qiang's Transparent Monument, a glass plate several meters in height that enhances this impression. Like a transparent canvas, it frames the images of the city in spring, the parks and skyscrapers. Imitation birds are installed on both sides of the gigantic plate, fake pigeons that have presumably broken their necks after flying into the invisible barrier, for which there is neither an inside nor an outside.

Transparent Monument, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, Photo: Maria Morais

One recalls, perhaps, that September 11, 2001 was also a clear, beautiful day and that the black clouds rising that morning from the World Trade Center were reproduced in the millions by the mass media and branded into the collective consciousness – initially as an unreal image impossible to comprehend, and then as a symbol for a new calculation of time. In this regard, Cai's exhibition on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum also addresses life in the post-9/11 world.

Nontransparent Monument, Detail, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006

On the other hand, his Nontransparent Monument of green limestone seems like an antithesis to the glass plate. Nine panels form a wall approximately ten meters wide into which tragic, comical, or even banal mass media images have been chiseled: news images from Iraq, public appearances by the American president George Bush , homosexual marriage ceremonies, scenes from TV news, parades and demonstrations. While the stone slab comes across as an archaeological finding from a long lost culture, archaic monsters preside on the roof garden's balustrade: two crocodiles, each of them impaled on a wooden stake. In his installation Move Along, Nothing to See Here, Cai lets the animals, symbols for insidiousness, danger, and evil, appear as protective spirits. The artificial reptiles are drilled through with knives, screwdrivers, and other sharp objects confiscated at airport security controls.

Nontransparent Monument, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006

In various different ways, all the works shown here convey an uneasy, ambivalent feeling; in an apparently effortless manner, they combine art, architecture, and the gentle green hues of Central Park. Already in 1994, at a symposium on Asian art, Cai asserted: "Art's existence… is dependent on a large number of natural, social, and cultural factors. These factors frequently contradict one another, and it is one of the fundamental religious tenets of Far Eastern culture to accept these contradictions and to look for the harmony and peaceful coexistence within them. It is quite clear that this eastern way of thinking calls for a new methodology in art."

Move Along, Nothing to See Here, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, Photo: Maria Morais

Since that time, the Chinese artist, who was born in 1957, has attracted international attention with his unique, multi-faceted methodology. Since the early nineties, he has realized a large number of projects around the globe that combine traditional Chinese art and culture with post-conceptual thought. To achieve this purpose, Cai Guo-Qiang takes recourse to an arsenal of highly disparate symbols, narratives, practices, and materials: Fengshui , Chinese medicinal herbs, dragons, roller-coasters, computers, automats, objects washed up on shore, and especially black gunpowder.

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