A New Noah's Ark: Artist Cai Guo-Qiang's Response to an Environmental Crisis in China

Christine Kuan
Aug 13, 2014 7:46PM

As China’s population nears 1.4 billion people, the strain on resources like food and water, impact on wildlife, and rampant air pollution have reached emergency levels of concern. Cai Guo-Qiang, who is known for explosive happenings (his fireworks lit the sky in the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony), has realized an incendiary new work: a fishing boat laden with 99 fabricated animals sent floating down the Bund on the Huangpu River. The piece is part of the artist's new exhibition "The Ninth Wave" at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, China’s first publicly funded contemporary art museum.

Recalling last year’s environmental catastrophe of 16,000 dead pigs dumped in the same river, Cai’s work brings greater awareness to the pressing ecological challenges we face and his love for the future of his homeland. Packed on the boat are replicas of endangered species, like giant pandas, tigers, cheetahs, and gorillas, all of which are threatened by extinction through man’s ongoing encroachment into their natural habitats and the rapid depletion of natural resources. Cai’s work examines the future of our environmental landscape through this boat journey down the Huangpu River, and also weaves in the rich legacy of Chinese literati painting, where depictions of landscapes are the highest form of painting.

The exhibition presents eleven new works created specifically for the show, including Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, a suite of drawings on porcelain directly referencing Chinese literati ink painting, and Elegy, an “explosion event” executed on the day of the opening--all of which express a mourning for the destruction of nature. Filled with complexity, Cai’s large-scale explosions and installations attract the masses, yet are intensely personal. Global in emotional resonance, Cai’s works are also rooted his personal memories. In a piece Cai personally wrote for Artsy, he recounts his boyhood sitting on his father’s lap as his father painted landscapes on matchboxes and told him vivid stories of the past. Although his father described these landscapes as “home,” Cai later realized that they were the imagined mountains, trees, rivers, and birds of his father’s aesthetic creation.

As with all Chinese literati painting, landscape is an expression of the scholar’s imagination as well as a meditation on nature. It is also, perhaps, the idea that man through his actions creates his environment. Violent and lyrical, Cai’s works feel wildly of the moment, yet rich with Chinese history. Thoroughly aware of the fragility of life, Cai evokes a sensation of timelessness through a process of creation that often begins with destruction. "The Ninth Wave," originally a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky done in 1850, tells the story of people clinging on for survival after a shipwreck. The title refers to a nautical term where the ninth wave is the largest wave, after which the cycle begins again. Cai’s new exhibition, conceived as a sequence of works, performances, interactions, and installations, is itself a cycle not to be missed.

Explore "The Ninth Wave" on Artsy.

Christine Kuan