this issue contains
>> Cai Guo-Qiang's explosive art
>> Gregor Schneider's hermetic rooms
>> All Together Now: Rirkrit Tiravanija
>> Interview Vadim Zakharov

>> archive


If Cai Guo-Qiang worked with fire, which would rapidly bring to mind archaic notions concerning the power of nature, this statement would be easy to understand. But he works with its probably most refined and, in terms of its historical significance, singular form, the explosion. If fire stands for nature’s energy, the explosion stands for the energy of civilization. After all, as the saying goes, nature did not invent gunpowder – human experimentation, however, did. For this reason, one might feel tempted to correct Cai. He doesn’t revert to nature, but to natural laws that are universally valid and understandable. He banks on these universal natural laws, whose widely divergent cultural use he further distorts in his artistic work, mixing it to create new images. Under closer examination, his work subscribes to rationalism and to the Enlightenment, chiefly in the form of natural science and technology – but there is also a political dimension, as earlier works testify.

The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Projects for the 20th Century, USA, 1996,
Courtesy Cai Studio

Thus, he made the image symbolizing the end of civilization for the entire planet the theme of his 1996 photographic project Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century. For the piece, he ignited a firecracker in his outstretched hand in various different locations, producing a ridiculous miniature of the infamous mushroom cloud. If the atom bomb is the feared ultima ratio of the explosion, its most popular form is probably the combustion engine, a motif that can also be found in Cai’s work. In the installation Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, which was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in 1996, three Toyota motors power a formation made of 108 inflated sheepskins. Clearly situated in the field of contemporary artistic practice as a site-specific interactive installation, Cai Guo-Qiang’s projects prove to be urban art through and through.

Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan
New York, USA, 1996, Courtesy Cai Studio

Yet precisely at the point where one regards Cai Guo-Qiang’s artistic work as being rooted in urban culture and rational thought, one begins to suspect that one has been mistaking a marginal aspect of his work as being central, and that Cai himself is seeking to deflect attention from his work’s basic core. Because suddenly he invokes the spirits his grandmother once spoke to; when he dispels them, he is also dispelling the artist who was still involved with political symbols.

Preparation of the installation "Head On", 2006, at Deutsche Guggenheim
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy Cai Studio

And one doesn’t quite know how to interpret Head On , the pack of 99 wolves currently charging at a glass wall in the Deutsche Guggenheim, which clearly recalls the now-vanished Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, as the Berlin Wall was called in the Communist East. Formally, the pack’s room-sized formation is reminiscent of a stage set, which only really unfolds to its full effect at a distance. For an installation in an art space, the animals are too close; besides, they’re disappointing in their not very wolf-like appearance. This is not least due to the soft, dyed, and brushed sheepskin they’re made of. Added to this is the fact that the wolf does not symbolize the collective heroism for us that Cai Guo-Qiang spoke of in his talk with Harald Fricke and Oliver Körner von Gustorf; instead, we associate the wolf with a dangerous slyness, an image that’s difficult to reconcile with the history of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Making of Vortex, 2006
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy Cai Studio

Furthermore, we traditionally see wolves as coming from the East, that endless space of yore that is no longer a part of civilization. In this sense, they belong to the symbolic order of archaic fire, although they too have an carefully planned explosion to thank for their existence. At least in the huge gunpowder drawing Vortex, which corresponds to The Making of Vortex, the video film of the magnificent fireworks. Shortly before the show’s opening, a few people were permitted to watch a drawing being made. In the framework of a small, cultivated event for the friends of the Guggenheim and the press, the artist appeared as a technician providing concise information on the making of the drawing and the process of the explosion.

Vortex, 2006, Deutsche Bank Collection,
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy of Cai Studio

Yet he prefers to mask this pose with a Far-Eastern esoteric mystique that seems strange, added on after the fact. In all probability, where his compositions no longer obey self-imposed rules of art, but the laws of Feng Shui, Cai Guo-Qiang is once again using the strength of his opponent – and the fabled beings, tigers, and dragons that populate the China of a mythical past quite possibly derive from nothing more than our own Western expectations and clichés. In this case, we’re merely irritated by an approach that we otherwise know as marketing, that signifies art in the age of its wellness function. This is the moment when we should insist that the seductive, tense aesthetic of Cai Guo-Qiang’s explosive work is due to chemistry: that it lends an artistic expression to universally valid natural laws: physics, far more than any metaphysics.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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