Cai Guo-Qiang, "I Want to Believe"

A Chinese artist blows up big at the Guggenheim.

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<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Head on

Photograph: Courtesy Of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum—the first such survey for this 50-year-old international superstar and native of Fujian province—marks the harmonic convergence of two art-world trends: the market’s love affair with contemporary Chinese artists, and a taste for ever larger and more spectacular installations. Cai is arguably the most interesting figure of the Chinese new wave, though that is damning with faint praise. The Guggenheim hails him as one of the greatest artists of our time, making a direct correlation between his rise to prominence and China’s newfound position in world affairs.

The effort poured into “I Want to Believe” is prodigious: The rotunda is filled with multitudes of compact cars and taxidermied tigers—the former riddled with fiber-optic strands, the latter with arrows—flown by wires from the ceiling in arrangements suggesting recombinant mutations of P.T. Barnum and Eadweard Muybridge. Head On, an airborne sled team of 99 stuffed wolves, arcs into the ether before crashing into a glass barrier. There are voluble videos documenting Cai’s massive controlled-explosion events using gunpowder, and huge “paintings” created by sprinkling paper or canvas with the same material and setting it alight. One installation features a kind of high-culture water-park ride. In short, there’s plenty of “wow” factor here, but art that supports the claims made for it? Not so much.

Cai makes big pieces with big messages that are fairly easy to grasp. Allusions to Chinese history, politics and philosophy abound, as do references to globalization, which has worked out pretty well for China. What other nation has attained superpower status despite putting poison into toothpaste and lead into toys?

Growing up, Cai witnessed firsthand his country’s transformation from a poor Communist society to one that is capitalist in all but name, accruing wealth without the fetters of democracy such as labor, safety or environmental regulations. He lived through the upheavals of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 in relative comfort thanks to his father’s position as a party member who ran a bookstore—which afforded young Cai access to forbidden literature. The artist was in his twenties when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, undertook the reforms that eventually allowed Cai to leave China for Tokyo in 1986. Ten years later, he moved to New York, where he resides today.


Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows

Photograph: Courtesy Of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Although a work like Cai’s flying pack of wolves is presented here as a warning against blind submission to ideology (according to the wall text), it would be wrong to think of the artist as a dissident. A strange nostalgia for Mao pervades the work, and Cai still maintains close ties to China. The wolves, for instance, were fabricated in a Fujian factory run by the artist’s brother. The lead sponsor for “I Want to Believe” is the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, a Hong-Kong–based philanthropy. Cai himself still speaks only through interpreters. The Guggenheim’s press materials describe him as a “trans-national” artist, which is a bit like calling him a multinational corporation. What this suggests for his art is less clear. He talks, for instance, about “chaos as the ultimate postmodern condition of globalization,” which might explain his passion for explosions, but to what end? For all of his pyrotechnics, Cai traffics in loaded imagery without quite pulling the trigger—not for nuance’s sake, one suspects, but because it would be bad for business.

The piece that best sums up his peculiar sensibility, perhaps, is Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows (1998), a full-size wooden fishing boat turned pincushion by the eponymous projectiles, suspended from the ceiling. It’s based on the legend of the 2nd-century general Zhuge Liang. Overmatched and out of ammo, Zhuge floated a squadron of unmanned ships “crewed” by straw men toward the enemy’s side, where archers obligingly shot at the targets. When the boats drifted back—voilà, Zhuge’s troops were rearmed. For Cai, the story illustrates China’s appropriation of Western know-how to further its ambitions as a global power. Given that a fan sets a stern-mounted Chinese flag aflutter, it’s tempting to surmise that he’s proud of this fact. But borrowing is not the same as innovation—something this show sorely lacks.

Cai correctly links the “creative destruction” of globalization with the Maoism of his youth. As for dealing with the consequences, however, he remains serenely ambivalent, preferring instead the role of official artist for the new world order. You don’t rock the boat when it’s full of arrows.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through May 28

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