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"Alchemy Pop"
The press on Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation "Head On" at the Deutsche Guggenheim

99 Wolves surge through the exhibition space, headed for a glass wall; a video screen shows a house exploding in colorful cascades of fireworks; on a huge gunpowder drawing, the silhouette of a pack of wolves traces a gigantic spiral. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On, commissioned for Deutsche Bank, was conceived especially for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. In his three-part installation, the Chinese art star reflects on the history and present of the German capital. Journalists’ reactions to Cai’s work have been ambivalent – while they seem fascinated by the work’s aesthetic, its symbolic content nonetheless remains somewhat of a mystery.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Making of Vortex, 2006,
Photo: © Hiro Ihara, Courtesy of Cai Studio

Prior to the show, the expectations for Head On ran high. After all, Cai Guo-Qiang is an established name in the international art establishment and "highly popular in the carnival of biennials," as Harald Fricke put it in his preview of the exhibition in the taz. Together with a number of selected colleagues from Germany, he was invited to experience the making of a gunpowder drawing in the artist’s studio outside New York City. Cai’s "alchemy Pop," however, reminded Fricke of "sulfurous, expressionist graffiti," while his fireworks and fabulous creatures – "a mixture between New-Age ambience and higher spirituality" – came across like "local customs on a globalized level." Yet despite this, Cai’s "tribute to his homeland is more than just a coy stylization," because the work also reflects the abrupt transitions in the biography of an artist who left his native China only to "watch the massacre on Tiananmen Square on TV during a travel grant to Japan. … Revolting against the system is another way of remaining true to one’s cultural roots." Yet in an exhibition review two months later, Fricke complains of the "conceptual deficit" of the installation at the Deutsche Guggenheim. To his mind, the symbolism of the wolves and the glass wall, the references to the exhibition location remain "puzzling". "In his involvement with Berlin’s past, Cai apparently never progressed beyond a few vague associations."

"Is this art, or is it mere craft?" asks Elke Buhr from the Frankfurter Rundschau in reference to Cai’s fireworks and gunpowder drawings. Yet she’s enthusiastic about the "subtle nuances of an image" that, while it "arose in a matter of seconds, looks as though it had a patina of centuries."

Buhr concludes that Cai "simultaneously caters to and reflects the expectations of a western audience" when he "approaches Chinese themes with the means of the western avant-garde. … In this way, Cai Guo-Qiang’s art is like a fortune cookie from a local Chinese restaurant: a taste of Chinese wisdom, packaged sweetly."

Hans-Joachim Müller’s article in the Zeit also expresses an ambivalent attitude towards Cai’s works. To his mind, the freshly made gunpowder drawing seems as though "a spray of meteors had just sped by and its glowing white tail had grazed the image for a fraction of a second." And while it "looks nice, … what else should one say?" But Müller doesn’t want to reduce Cai to his "spectacular fire swallowing" alone. "It’s one thing that he’s created ingenious inventions in the area of temporary sky painting. But the other is a multi-faceted work that uses understandable symbols and powerful signs to report on the friction Cai Guo-Qiang’s generation has experienced as their country encounters world culture."

Cai Guo-Qiang, Construction of Head On, 2006,
Photo: © Hiro Ihara, Courtesy of Cai Studio

On the other hand, for Gabriele Walde of the Berliner Morgenpost, Cai is an "artist shaman" in the tradition of Joseph Beuys. He reminds her of a "player with myths", who "joins together various worlds with apparent ease" like a "Chinese bag of novelties in global currency." "The fact that the Chinese artist studied stage design can be seen in the way his large-scale installations in several, precisely arranged parts occupy space." For Walde, Cai’s video work evokes "images of destruction and of war (…) but more than this. The uneasy viewer registers an almost childlike fascination for the beauty of fire." Eva Karcher of Vogue also finds Cai’s work to be "explosive and beautiful" – a "pyromaniacal ceremony" and "flaming meditation on beauty and transitoriness."

Nicola Kuhn of the Tagesspiegel is also fascinated by the "pictures of beauty and destruction – an elegy of sparks and falling stars in Berlin’s evening sky. It only takes a few seconds to associate this with the Second World War. (…) Breathlessly, the viewer watches a work of destruction that is rich in association." To her, Cai seems like a magician whose work "has its roots in Chinese tradition and is merely crossed with western conceptual ideas." In the process, he transforms the Deutsche Guggenheim into "a place of magic. And then you suddenly believe you’ve felt a draft, a stream of energy that courses throughout the entire exhibition space."