Cai Guo-Qiang Is Running on Empty

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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