August 8 is a most vulgarly auspicious day in China (the twin “8s” forming a pun for “prosperity”). It also happened to be the opening day for Cai Guo-Qiang’s “The Ninth Wave” at Shanghai’s mammoth Power Station of Art (PSA). The celebrated installation artist and pyrotechnical master, having designed the fireworks at Shanghai’s APEC Conference and the Beijing Olympics, has recently also completed “One Night Stand” in Paris (with couples invited to tents on a bateau-mouche on the Seine, and fireworks “One Night Stand” exploding in the sky) and “Falling Back to Earth” in Queensland. “The Ninth Wave” can be seen as a continuation of the ecological vein in the Queensland show.
Some days before the opening, an eponymous work was presented: a barge carrying a fishing boat filled with all kinds of animal figures on top entered the port of Shanghai. The work was inspired by the 2013 incident where 16,000 pigs from a pig-farming area of Jiaxing were dumped upstream from Shanghai and made their way merrily down the Huangpu River. Many observers, however, lamented the fact that the work could only be seen from afar and lacked any opportunity for close-up audience viewing.
Elsewhere, the creation of the long gunpowder scroll “The Bund Without Us” was open to the public. The assistants from Cai Studio and an army of volunteers spent almost two hours preparing the drawings, sprinkling gunpowder in the appropriate places as the audience fidgeted in their seats. After a short speech and much jostling of the crowd to coax them to safety, Cai leaned down and lit the art work with a torch setting off a slow burn that within a few seconds morphed into a thunderous explosion which sent the crowd jumping back from the barrier. The whole museum filled with black smoke which rose all the way up to the second balcony and the hall was filled with applause—at least as much applause as could happen with most hands wrapped around mobile phones. Cai then proceeded to walk the length of the drawing and light off small areas that had not yet ignited and then the stencils were slowly removed revealing the drawing below. Images of Cai, with his orange socks, flooded WeChat, a social media in China. This was no tepid warm up to the opening day.
The actual pyrotechnics of the opening started out at 5 pm. The PR agency hired by Cai Guo-Qiang’s studio popularized the hashtag “bairi yanhuo” (“白日焰火”, or roughly, “daylight pyrotechnics”) on WeChat, explaining that setting off black fireworks in daylight signified not celebration but mourning, reflection, and solace. From afar, thick green billows of smoke hung from the sky, drifting from PSA’s large smokestack. Those unaware might have thought it a poison gas leak; those blessed with imagination bellowed, “Ultraman is coming!”
On the river front, the same views were observed from both the white VIP tents and the public viewing area on the side: smoke bundles of pink, purple, yellow, and green rose up wave after wave, with the overall form contained within a “canvas” in the sky. One thinks of the “Sky Art” of Otto Piene and Dennis Oppenheim (who traced white smoke with an aircraft in the sky), but this was more all-engulfing by far. The din was particularly striking—at times a steady drum beat, at others a lupine howl, the clamor of the explosions, the intermittent silence in between, along with that smell of gunpowder lingering in the air all forged a gloomy tension.
At night, images Cai Guo-Qiang’s opening clogged up the WeChat feeds. And yet one spontaneously is on guard: the whole scene felt like an extravaganza, one held merely to celebrate Cai Guo-Qiang, an artist. As Gong Yan, the director of the PSA accompanied Hu Jinjun, the director of the Shanghai Cultural Bureau, through the crowds, one wonders what exactly does this exhibition mean for the first official contemporary art museum in China, which was founded nearly two years ago? “The Ninth Wave” could not be a more fitting first solo exhibition here, with large-scale new works covering practically all floors? On site, engulfed by the celebratory crowds, the works seemed at times like mere decorations for a festival.
Of course, the cumulative gist of these works, just in case you missed the symbolism, is a deep reflection on the near-catastrophic state of the environment. Serious in intent, they ponder the crisis between human greed and ecology and aim to air rarely explored (dare we say almost site-specific ) environmental issues. Ironically the show was heavily sponsored by Infiniti, the car brand, with dedicated cars emblazoned with the name of the show.
When the fireworks were set off, unaware (and vigilant) citizens reported the case to the Shanghai Security Bureau’s Weibo account (note: Weibo is a Twitter-like social media in China). The PR company, Concord Communications, quickly clarified that all accelerants were environmentally friendly, all the coloring used was comestible, and indeed all the necessary permits and approvals were obtained from the relevant authorities—even offering Shanghai’s PM2.5 pollution index. In other words, we could all enjoy and admire this safely.
“Silent Ink” on the first floor was perhaps the best work in the entire show: the shallow lake in the middle of the exhibition hall is surrounded by greyish rubble, tiles and bricks—the grey of concrete and the pink plastic foam forming chunky mounds. On one side, the ink is pumped up through a pipe above the lake, shooting out cyclically to create an ink waterfall, forming waves and ripples in the lake of ink emitting an intense smell of ink. The ink flows on and on, as the viewers shuffled on with the flow.
In the adjacent exhibition hall to “Head On”, Cai presented a new work created during his exhibition at the Arab Art Museum in Doha in 2012. During his stay he visited the breeding stables of the royal family where horses are treated like well-kept mistresses. They have a salon for grooming including all kinds of treatments, massage, special food and treadmills, but like mistresses, they lack a certain freedom as their reproductive lives being strictly managed (the film included some very graphic scenes of sperm collection). The thoroughbreds rarely have opportunities to run free on the dunes like their wild ancestors. Though it visually seems like an outlier, the work fits thematically with the idea of human intervention in nature, at the same time making an ironic comment on the idea of “pedigree” in the human world—is the world a “human zoo”? Have we become just as enslaved as the animals we breed?
On the second floor, aside from the “Head On” (Cai’s famous wolf installation), gunpowder paintings and draft sketches of all sizes, there were also two archival areas. One was a screening room projecting many documentary films of Cai Guo-Qiang’s important fireworks. The other “Timeline” was a document room, outlining the major points in Cai’s life and career. One oil painting, a self-portrait done in the 1980s, was particularly moving. The figure in the painting seemed to say: Are you looking at me, or am I looking at you? Certainly, Cai Guo-Qiang has made a sensational mark at the Power Station of Art.
(by Gu Ling with contributions from Rebecca Catching)