On July 17, a fishing boat traveled down China’s Huangpu River piled with 99 distressed stuffed animals. Camels, pandas, polar bears, leopards, and zebras clung helplessly to the dilapidated hull. For most passersby, the scene likely evoked either Noah’s ark or a memory of the 16,000 pig carcasses that floated down the polluted Yangtze tributary — which supplies water to 26 million people in Shanghai — last spring.
The boat, a public art intervention by the artist Cai Guo-Qiang, was headed for Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, where it is now being installed in the former electrical plant’s galleries as part of The Ninth Wave (also the title of the boat), a solo exhibition opening August 8. The first major show of a living artist at China’s first publicly funded contemporary art institution, it will also showcase Cai’s gunpowder drawings, which nod to traditional Chinese ink painting.
Though the ark recalls the Biblical story of the flood, its imagery also vibrantly reinterprets Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1850 work of the same name. In the oil painting, the half-drowned survivors of a shipwreck cling to the ship’s broken mast as they are tossed by the waves. As in this image, the situation Cai depicts is a dire one, reminding us that natural forces don’t always prevail against social and political ones. Shanghai remains one of the world’s most polluted cities, and dead pigs keep turning up in tributaries of the Yellow River. No one seems to know where they’re coming from.
Here are a few more photos from the event: