Opportunity for alchemy: Spectacular, explosive works of Chinese-born artist on display at SITE Santa Fe, appeared in Durango Herald, Mar. 10, 2006


Photos Courtesy Eric Swanson and SITE Santa Fe
On left is Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Nine Cars,” gunpowder on rice paper. On right is Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Innopportune: Stage Two, 2004,” the tigers are made of papier mache, plaster, fiber glass, resin and painted hide. The arrows are made of brass, bamboo, feathers and bronze. On the wall to the left of the tiger is the artist’s drawing of “Tigers with Arrows 2005,” gunpowder on paper.

The work of Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang is explosive. Literally. The artist’s primary media are gunpowder and fireworks. Creating art with explosives may seem inappropriate given the almost daily news of car bombings and terrorist activity, but it is precisely this terrorism that Qiang addresses in his installation at SITE Santa Fe called “Inopportune.” For Cai, an explosion need not be destructive. An explosion can be creative, beautiful and even restorative.

Cai Guo-Qiang began his artistic career as a stage designer for the Shanghai Drama Institute. Entering the main gallery at SITE is like entering an elaborate stage production. Nine tigers, created from papier mache, plaster, fiberglass, resin and painted hide, are pierced with hundreds of bamboo arrows. The tigers prepare to pounce, some writhe in pain, while others hover in the air, contorted, distorted, attacked. Are they villainous tigers attacked by heroes or heroes attacked by villains? The answer is mutable. The idea of finding a tiger on the street in China is a symbol of unfounded fear. In numerology, the number nine represents aggressive action, penetration, courage and conflict. It also represents regeneration.

The spectacular drawings are made by exploding gunpowder in controlled patterns on heavy sheets of Japanese rice paper.

“Nine Cars” is 160 inches by 240 inches, and the circular form of the cars suggests the closed cycle of Qi or energy. It is easy to overlook the huge circular painting as you enter SITE, but nine cars is an important image in understanding the meaning behind the arrows piercing the tigers.

“Inopportune” was commissioned for MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., and was installed there from December 2004 through October 2005. Cia installed nine white cars there with sequenced multi-channel light tubes like Christmas lights splaying from them. The cars were positioned as a freeze-frame capturing the movement of a car flipping over and exploding.

At MASS MoCA, one walked under and around the cars before entering the second stage of the exhibit: the tigers. The exploding cars were the protrusion. The arrows in the tigers were the protrusions piercing the natural world. Having only the drawing of Nine Cars and not the rest of the original installation diminishes the effect at SITE.

The white car also is present in the nine-foot high, 42-foot long projection titled “Illusion,” in which a phantom car bristling with fireworks moves through Times Square at night. The pedestrians are oblivious to the fireworks. It’s as if the viewer is the only one who sees the explosions. Yet the charred car used to film the fireworks explosion sits in the adjacent gallery, a real connection to fear.

A resident of lower Manhattan since 1995, Cai experienced the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is that experience, he says, that made him a New Yorker. Through his work, he hopes to reconfigure the meaning of an explosion to illustrate how “Something used for destruction and terror can also be constructive, beautiful and healing.”

Laura Steward Heon, former Curator at MASS MoCA, and new director of SITE Santa Fe, curated “Inopportune.” The exhibition provides imagery to stimulate thought without prescribing what the viewer should be thinking.

If you go
“Inopportune” an installation by Cai Guo-Qiang, through March 26, $8/$4 seniors and students, free to members (Fridays are free for everyone, thanks to The Brown Foundation of Houston). SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, (505) 989-1188, sitesantafe.org.

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