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Indepth Arts News:

"Cai Guo-Qiang: Inopportune"
2004-12-12 until 2005-10-30
North Adams, MA, USA United States of America

MASS MoCA’s football-field sized Building 5 will house a dramatic installation by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang in 2005. Known for his vast orchestrations of gunpowder projects and large, theatrical sculptures, Cai has created for MASS MoCA his most expansive installation to date. Titled Inopportune, the exhibition will open on December 12, 2004, remaining on view through October 2005.

The centerpiece of Inopportune, titled Inopportune: Stage 1, features a dazzling array of colored light pulsing from hundreds of long transparent rods. These rods thrust out from nine identical white cars which tumble in an arc through the gallery, suspended in mid-air as if by stop-action. Gradually the viewer perceives that an explosive event is unfolding in nine frozen frames. At the end of the sequence the car lands safely, unaltered, implying a closed and repeatable circuit.

In the adjacent gallery newly opened for this installation in Inopportune: Stage 2, nine realistic tigers crouch, pounce, and leap through the air. Hundreds of bamboo arrows pierce the tigers, appearing to lift them skyward. The tiger imagery refers to a famous 13th-century Chinese story of Wu Song, a bandit who saved a village from a man-eating tiger that terrorized it and became the paragon of heroism and bravery in China.

In a third space, a nine-foot high, 35-foot long projection, titled Illusion, envelopes the viewer. A phantom car bristling with fireworks floats like a ghost through Times Square at night. The street vibrates with glittering neon, heavy traffic, traffic noise, and crowds of life-sized pedestrians. The ghostly car appears “pasted” on top of the flowing traffic; people on foot and in cars are oblivious to the fireworks erupting from it. As in a dream, the viewer alone can see it. The 90-second film is a continuous loop.

Lastly, on the mezzanine overlooking the suspended cars, an expansive drawing – nearly 20 feet long and 12 feet high – hangs from the back wall. The enormous ellipse that dominates the center of the drawing was made by exploding gunpowder on the surface of the heavy paper and is comprised of nine exploding cars. Cai began making drawings with gunpowder in 1984, a practice for which he is well known.

Explosions have been a central part of Cai’s creative practice since the mid-1980s, when he left China for Japan (where he lived from 1986-1995). His best-known explosion on a massive scale was Transient Rainbow, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York soon after September 11, 2001, in which exploding fireworks arced over the East River from Manhattan to Queens. Although he has lived in lower Manhattan for almost ten years, September 11 made Cai a New Yorker. He took the opportunity of the MoMA commission to refigure the meaning of an explosion in Manhattan, to show that “something used for destruction and terror can also be constructive, beautiful, and healing.”  

He explains, “In my hometown every significant social occasion of any kind, good or bad – weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home – is marked by the explosion of firecrackers…Firecrackers are like the town crier, announcing whatever’s going on in the town.” For Cai, explosive forces – whether from gunpowder, fireworks, or even the atomic bomb – go beyond any national or political context. Their origins in alchemy and fundamental physics invoke curative, transformative power and spiritual questions whose scope is eternal rather than immediate, universal rather than local, and metaphysical rather than mundane.

In his MASS MoCA installation, those questions take the unequivocal and immediate form of an exploding car bomb, which Cai rolls out like a slow-motion kinesthetic dream. Terrorism is not only geo-political for Cai, it is also profoundly intimate. Winner of one of the most important prizes in contemporary art, the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale in 1999, Cai’s recent major projects include Bon Voyage: 10,000 Collectibles from the Airport at the Sao Paulo Biennal in 2004; Cai Guo-Qiang: Traveler, a two-part exhibition at the Hirschhorn Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2004; and Light Cycle: Explosion Project for Central Park in 2003; as well as MoMA’s Transient Rainbow in 2002. Cai also curated an exhibition titled BMoCA: Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004 which focused on turning military structures into spaces for art and culture.

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China. The son of a historian and painter, Cai was trained in stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute from 1981 to 1985. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, Cai first presented his explorations of the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale. He quickly achieved international prominence during his tenure in Japan, and his work was shown widely around the world. His approach draws on a wide variety of symbols, narratives, traditions and materials such as feng shui, Chinese medicine, dragons, roller coasters, computers, vending machines and gunpowder. He has been selected as a finalist for the 1996 Hugo Boss Prize and was merited with such awards as the CalArts/ Alpert Award in the Arts in 2000.

Major support for MASS MoCA’s series of gallery and humanities programs on contemporary Chinese artists has been provided by The W. L. S. Spencer Foundation with additional support from the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art.

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