Reactor

Cai Guo-Qiang Is Running on Empty

by Ana Alvarez on September 21, 2011

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang's solo exhibition "Move Along, Nothing to See Here," on view at Brown University's Cohen Gallery. (All photos by Shirin Adhami, courtesy Brown University Visual Art Department.)

PROVIDENCE, RI — Cai Guo-Qiang’s Move Along, Nothing to See Here opened last Friday at the Cohen Gallery at Brown University in Rhode Island. The inaugural event for Brown’s “Year of China,” the exhibit includes work common to Cai’s oeuvre. The main sculptural work of the show, “Moving Along Nothing to See Here” (2006), has a title comprised of a phrase we commonly hear used by policemen at a crime scene. It consists of two life-sized crocodiles, supported by wooden stills, their jaws wide open and writhing in pain. Hundreds of small hand knives, utensils, box openers and blades taken from the security checkpoints of New York airports are stabbed into their scales.

The other works include examples of Cai’s well-known use of gunpowder — one is a burnt drawing inspired by the crocodile sculpture entitled “Snapping Crocodile” (2006) and the other is a video installation of a pyrotechnic performance Cai presented on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, titled “Clear Sky Black Cloud” (2006).

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang's solo exhibition "Move Along, Nothing to See Here" at Cohen Gallery. (click to enlarge)

According to the exhibit’s curatorial statement, Cai’s approach includes “‘a frank look at society today and cultural/political issues we have to deal with,’” specifically as a response to the attacks of 9/11. Superficially, his work does recall violence, both as enacted on the viewer when faced with such threatening animals and on the stabbed animals themselves. Yet, for a show meant to commemorate Chinese culture, it seems like Cai’s work, while visually stunning and visceral, fails to frankly address the many political issues surrounding China and the arts.

I had imagined (or falsely hoped) that Cai, who gave a lecture at the opening of the exhibit, would take the opportunity to address the several grievances Chinese artists have had to endure from their government, the most notable being the recent imprisonment of fellow Chinese artists Ai Wei Wei. As someone brought to one of the most renowned universities to speak behalf of the visual arts in China, Cai was granted with an exceptional platform to voice concern over the Chinese government’s treatment of dissident artists. Yet, instead, Cai proceeded to talk just about himself for an hour and a half. How can he claim that his work addresses cultural and political issues when he fails to even mention the overwhelming injustices his own culture imposes on fellow artists?

In the end, the exhibit failed to surprise. The pieces were standard examples of Cai’s previous work. And, ever since the Beijing Olympics Opening ceremony — an explosive publicity stunt for the Chinese government designed by Cai — it’s clear that unlike other artist working to undermine China’s oppressive treatment of nonconformists, Cai has no intention of critically tackling his patronage. While he may claim to be a simple showman setting off firecrackers, his exhibit shows that for now he is more of a public relations puppet for an autocratic government.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Move Along, Nothing to See Here continues at the Cohen Gallery in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts (154 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island) at Brown University until October 28.

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  • Ross Harris

    What insane logic.  I’m an American who has lived in Beijing for four years now, and I get annoyed with the way American media deals with Chinese issues  It’s frustrating to see every single Chinese event/artist/work of art politicized, usually in a way that shows complete ignorance of circumstances in this country.  Talk about propaganda.  Why should Cai Guo Qiang HAVE to speak about Ai Wei Wei at an opening and how in the world does this affect his work?  It’s like saying a Saudi filmmaker has to mention Wahhabi extremism in his/her work or be criticized for not doing so.  Chinese have absolutely no say in their government, but this is irrelevant when judging an artist’s work.  Should he instead be making angry, Tian’anmen square themed paintings, easily understood as “Chinese art?”

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Hi Ross, the author is taking issue with an artist who says his work is about politics and then doesn’t deal with the big political elephant in the room. She is calling bullshit on his desire to have his cake and eat it too.

  • Anonymous

    Why do we assume that all of China’s artist don’t like their government? I am sure some do and that some don’t. Who are we to tell them that they have to create anti-political work because it is what we expect? Even if they do dislike China’s political stance why would we limit them to only making art about that? Is that not a form of censorship under the guise social norming?  Is it possibly racist to think that is the only kind of art that they can or should create?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      That is an interesting idea to think the artist loves his government. Perhaps Western patrons would think differently about the work if they realized that the artist was a closet autocrat.

  • Ana Alvarez

    I appreciate both of you have reached out to turn this issue into a conversation. I think both of you are right in objecting that the work of all Chinese artists be unnecessarily “politicized,” or that should be “assuming that all artists don’t like their government.” Yet, as Hrag has noted, my comments on the political value of art were solely intended to Cai’s work, not any other artist. And I am making no assumption, Cai himself has said, and is quoted in the curatorial statement of this exhibit, that his approach includes a “frank look at society today and cultural/political issues we have to deal with.” Now, in my opinion—and I openly accept that it is my own—if I were to frankly look back at the cultural/political issues that Chinese citizens have dealt with, I would be unable to ignore the well documented and discussed injustices enacted by the Chinese government on fellow artist Ai WeiWei. Fellow artists, cultural institutions, publications, and thousands of other people protested and continue to condemn the Chinese governments oppressive behavior. (Read “Anish Kapoor Snubs China, Supports Ai WeiWei,” “Should Museum Protest Ai WeiWei’s Arrest” “US Museums Confront the Ai WeiWei Question”)

    What is even more surprising is that Cai, given the opportunity to create a dialogue or even simply comment on this most pertinent issue at an event called “Year of China,” which was specifically created to examine Chinese culture, openly refused to talk on the subject. I am not claiming that all Chinese art has to be political; I am protesting is Cai’s
    bullshit claim of political relevance.

  • http://www.rosspainting.blogspot.com Ross Harris

    Alright, maybe a bit of hyperbole in my first post, but I read the article as a dismissal of the artist’s work based on his “bullshit claim of political relevance.”   I can understand why not everyone can be as fearless as Ai Wei Wei has been.  I still think that Cai’s work can be politically relevant, even if he cannot critique his own government.  It stands alone, regardless of Cai’s possible hypocrisy.

    In reality, some Chinese lack the bravery needed or are unwilling to accept absolute certain ruin by criticizing their government in a direct way.  Americans have a hard time understanding that it’s hard to be raised in this environment and then fight back against that same environment.  Instead, Chinese have developed “soft” ways of protesting, simply to protect themselves.

    Ana, thanks for your clear explanation.  Also, I completely agree with What76 that a number of Chinese artists are nationalists or pro-government, or, far more commonplace in this country, are totally apathetic.  The reality is that little understanding of central government policies coupled with tight family structures makes many Chinese less likely to rely on police or the courts, which in turn creates an apolitical person.

  • Anonymous

    Agree with what Ross and What76 stated. It is definitely your opinion as a observer of Cai’s work to formulate your own POV of whether or not you admire or condemn an artist’s idea and stance. But note a few things. 

    Many people in the US, get on their celebrities for not taking an active stance in politics, religion and other social issues important to them. Many cases it is not that the celebrities don’t care about the issues, it’s that they choose their battles on what to stand up for. One may call that fake, but it’s also a move to preserve their social status that is often directly correlated to their stardom. In people in China’s case, their government does not offer their celebrities that freedom to speak or not. If you speak out against the system, then you are a cancer to the system and treated as such. Many people in Asia let alone China (as Ross stated) know how the system works and has adapted this (for better or worse) into their culture. A passive aggressive way to not be confrontational, but still find that soft way to getting your point across. With tremendous respect, I’m assuming Ai Wei Wei figured this out when he was imprisoned and even he knew that he could live to fight another day if we got out of that horrible “house arrest” by his government. I think Cai does care about politics & issues around the world, especially in this own country. But staying out of his country’s issues may not be because he agrees with the direction, it may be by choice. Finally in closing, I think we take for granted our worldly POV about China’s political direction and doings. As What76 stated, it is quite possible that Cai is pro-nationalistic and does not feel the need to critique his country.

  • Anonymous

    I think one point that we can all agree on is that it is important to not look at the question of the political nature of Cai’s work through Western eyes. I now see that perhaps calling for Cai to be more politically upfront in his work might come from my own Western understanding of how art can be political. And sure, perhaps Cai really is “pro-nationalistic” and doesn’t see the need to protest. But, I still stand by my opinion that, if this was the case, Cai should have at the very least stated this stance. To call your work “political” and present a lecture meant to critically analyze Chinese culture, only to openly refuse to express any opinion on the matter, to me, seems like a cop out on Cai’s part. 

  • Ana Alvarez

    I think one point that we can all agree on is that it is important to not look at the question of the political nature of Cai’s work through Western eyes. I now see that perhaps calling for Cai to be more politically upfront in his work might come from my own Western understanding of how art can be political. And sure, perhaps Cai really is “pro-nationalistic” and doesn’t see the need to protest. But, I still stand by my opinion that, if this was the case, Cai should have at the very least stated this stance. To call your work “political” and present a lecture meant to critically analyze Chinese culture, only to openly refuse to express any opinion on the matter, to me, seems like a cop out on Cai’s part. 

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