Friday, February 22, 2008

Art: Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim

Once again, I'm hesitant to write a response to something I've seen. I can't say that I understood, or much liked, what I saw at the opening of the Guggenheim's Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective, and I feel somewhat unqualified to write about it. Frankly, I'm probably unqualified to write half the nonsense I write here, and I will therefore get over myself, presently, and tell you what I saw and what I didn't feel, and why that was a problem.

The Guggenheim's spiraling gallery (if you've never been there, imagine yourself walking up through the tube of a giant compact fluorescent bulb) is an odd space that lends itself quite well to some art, and quite poorly to other (the Rosenquist retrospective was a disaster; his long, flat panels awkwardly popped off of the curving walls). Most of Cai's work suits the space; three-dimensional installations that the viewer either walks through or along-with are lent some sort of movement-imperative by the museum's ever-curving ramp, and the central installation, involving the suspended bodies of nine identical compact cars in an upwardly-cascading spiral, is the most absolute use of the museum's central space I've seen.

The four or five pieces that take the most space are probably the ones making the biggest impressions on the audience. There is, of course, the aforementioned car "explosion;" the suspended vehicles, turned upright then sideways then upside-down and so forth, spit tubes of blinking lights that simulate fireworks. Then, there are is a parade of stuffed tigers, each stuck with hundreds of wooden arrows (PETA, fear not, no actual tigers were harmed in the making of this imitation-taxidermy). A Chinese scroll painting of a parade of tigers in suspended motion accompanies the piece; we are to infer that Cai is contemporizing and sculpturizing the traditional genre of scroll painting, and, like I said, the space of the museum works well to this end. The next memorable piece, as the audience marches up the ramp, is another group of imitation-taxidermy; this time wolves, running, in a pack. They run up into the air, so that at the piece's beginning, they are on the ground with us, and near the end, they are suspended above our heads. At that point, they charge head-first into a glass wall and fall to the ground in a writhing mass, snipping and snarling at each other. (This piece was created for a commission by Deutsche Bank. If you don't see the criticism inherent in the metaphor, I can't help you. I would have liked to see Deutsche Bank's response included in the show.) After the mitigation of stuffed animals, we begin to walk through a parade of unfinished figurative sculptures: old Chinese men carrying sacks, old Chinese women bent at the waist and digging in the dirt, etc. (everyone is laboring, and everyone has a bent back). You wouldn't know that it is a re-creation of Cai's recreation of an often-re-created piece of propagandistic, pro-Communism sculpture unless you had a personal volunteer tour guide, as I did. His original recreation was for the Venice Biennale in 1999; he won a prize. In this iteration of the piece, the sculptures are unfinished, and the higher up the ramp we march, the less finished they are, so that at the end of the piece, we see only wire and wooden frames. The last piece I'll mention in particular is in a separate gallery from the spiral, where the floor is flat. Amongst a menage of other, smaller pieces, a standing canal has been erected to wind through the room, in which a tiny boat, big enough for one person to sit in while he pushes himself from one end of the canal to the other, gripping the sides of the canal, floats. Visitors are welcome to take a spin, and are escorted by two uniformed museum guards. The effect is part Disneyland, part detention center.

The rest of the show (it's quite a sizable one) consists mostly of work relating to what Cai might be most famous for: explosions. Since it would be impractical (to say the least) to recreate Cai's explosions, which are usually done out in the middles of giant fields, in the gallery, the curators have instead included a large number of Cai's gunpowder "paintings," which are studies of a sort for those big, outdoor explosions. On canvas and rice paper, Cai has made small explosions with gunpowder, leaving brown patterns burnt into the surface; he also scrawls handwritten notes on these pieces, recalling the elusive Cy Twombly. These pictures are basically tedious, and fairly repetitive.

Ultimately, for all of its flash (and all the money and man hours that go into each piece), Cai's work leaves me feeling pretty empty. I can appreciate certain tropes—appropriation, re-creation, etc.—but I can't, for the life of me, find an over-arching reason for Cai's work—an explanation of what makes it art rather than entertainment, an adherence to a coherent theory of what art is or should be (decoration, political commentary, "cool" experience, etc.) While I am more than hesitant to invoke the word "inscrutable" to describe the work of anyone of Asian descent, thanks to a long history of sickness-inducing racist associations, the seemingly-random assortment of small pieces in the separate gallery (the one with the canal) warrants no other term: snakes in a basket, dangling sculptures of crudely-carved wooden putti and bodhisattvas, anatomical diagrams—is there some personal mythology in which these objects have some greater meaning?

While my personal tastes are often that of the proverbial throwback (I hanker after quattrocento religious painting), I feel as though I have a fairly evolved and open mind when it comes to looking at modern and contemporary art. I'm not particularly mad about political art, but I can accept that some art is political, and discern good political art from bad. I'm not particularly mad about minimalist sculpture, but I can look at it, and often even enjoy it; I prefer Judd to Andre, and Andre to Smith. I don't love land art, but I bet Spiral Jetty is pretty rad in real life (as opposed to in pictures, which is how most everyone experiences it). My point is that art doesn't need to be beautiful, or political, or historical, or in any other way meaningful for me to enjoy it. It just has to get me: preferably in the gut, but via the brain is acceptable as well. Cai doesn't get me at all: not in the gut, not in the brain, not in the eye. It's not funny; it's not pretty; it's not edifying; it's not condemning (except for maybe the piece with the wolves, which is the best thing in the show, despite the fact that it's a bit heavy-handed). Walking through this retrospective is something like walking through a carnival as a jaded adult, when none of the fried food smells good, none of the rides look exciting, and none of the people look attractive. That is to say, rather tedious.

1 comment:

Joni said...

Glad to see it didn't want to make you jump over the railing like the Richard Prince show...that must count for something. ;-)