Cai Guo Qiang: Head On

“The 99 life-sized wolves are leaping en masse towards an unseen wall, with those at the front falling from striking the wall while those bringing up the rear continuing surging forward, undeterred. Seen from afar, the leaping wolf pack forms an arc full of force and power, their fierce courage and spirit of warrior camaraderie seemingly serving as a reminder to people.” (Text from National Museum Website)

Cai Guo-Qiang: Head On

A work that strikes resonance for Berliners, reminding them of the Berlin wall should also remind the Chinese of the Great Wall of China that kept out the Northern warring nomadic tribes.
To many, the use of wolves, and fact that the work is supported by the Deutsch bank, reminds us of the work Joseph Beuy’s The Pack (1969). In Head-On (2006), the pack of determined, errant wolves charge against a glass wall. The uniformity  suggests the loss of individuality in the pack when pursuing that elusive success/end. Joseph Beuy’s work featured another pack, one that is even more symbolic. The wolves are metaphorical; sliding out of back of Volkswagen bus van are 20 sledges, each carrying felt, fat, and a flashlight, like an orderly platoon sent in a mission. Both, to some extend, represent the psyche of people, more than simply tacky taxidermy or assemblage of ready-mades, to differing interpretations.

Wolves here could represent the position of a predator or a prey to human hunting or captivity. The tale of the Little Red Riding Hood best represents the ambivalence of fear and sympathy we have for wolves. Talking animals aside, could also be read to suggest that human beings are more witty and meaner than wolves. In one version of the story, the hunter slits the wolf’s stomach open to free the old lady and girl, and replaces them with stones. The wolf eventually drowns when it tips over while looking into a well. Using wolves as a symbol of the unyielding fighter, it illuminates the work with a sense of tenacity, triumph over extreme circumstances; extreme circumstances caused by people or natural calamity. Using wolves as a symbol of the prey, a circus act caught in a spiral of action-reaction, gives a sense of frustration. Like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, doomed for eternity to roll a boulder up a hill only to start again from the bottom.

Illusion II (2006) shows a 8 minutes, two channel video of a hut filmed from two perspectives. As the fireworks burns the hut and creates a spectacle, the viewer is unaware that the video is looped and repeated. The illusion is complete when there’s actually no head or tail to the burning, only the spectacle. Many are intrigued by fire and burning things, not in the arsonist extreme psychotic way, but amazement by the change of state of matter accompanied by loud sounds, coloured light and smoke. For others, fireworks remain a symbol of human creativity, the mastery of fire to do its masters’ bidding. It is like magic, but expansive and expensive on a large backdrop to rival the stars.

For the artist, the use of gunpowder reclaims the dignity of the invention from it’s deadlier use. In Vortex (2006), a concentric arrangement of ash and burn marks resemble the 99 wolves in Head-on. On closer inspection, the empty, negative spaces seem to suggest the Silhouette of  wolves. The abstract stains and burns are almost defiant of American Abstract Expressionist’s lay to claim of the subconscious to mark making; here, the subconscious is unleased with a bang, an expressive and explosive manner where the process is as important as the painting/drawing itself.

The works on display form a good introduction to the works of Cai Guo-Qiang, as prolific Chinese Contemporary Artist operating in the International Art world. It even suggests the scale required to awe an audience, familiar to art or not. I am certain others will agree with me, they had hoped for exhibits with a bit more bang. If fireworks near a national monument were restricted, or purse strings still tight from the recovering global economy, perhaps the display of the 3 works could have been separated, so as not to diminish the aura of the objects, according the space the artworks each rightfully deserve.

6.0 of 10 stars.

2 Jul – 31 Aug 2010, National Museum of Singapore

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