Monthly Archives: August 2010

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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Utopia Highway by Chun Kai Qun

“The installation begins with a miniature scene of a village and people driving out of town heading for Utopia. The word Utopia is made up of roads, suggesting that the journey and search itself is where the Utopian ideal is.” Chun Kai Qun

Utopia Highway

Every driver probably has a favourite road. Some might choose the straight, runway-like Lim Chu Kang Road to test their wheels alignment amongst other things, or Ayer Rajah Expressway -East Coast Highway scenic drive from west to east of the island. Those who prefer a drive to no-where, would probably sympathise with this work; Singapore, a metropolitan village of high idealism, clockwork efficiency is made possible by hardworking people and 8848km of road 1. For those who don’t drive, the work will remind you of American road movies or literature, synonymous with American culture because hitting the road allows the protagonist of the story to get away, and eventually find their freedom ‘out there’, in the unknown landscape.

The work consists of a modeled city centre, with an expansive and gravity defying highway that leads out of the city, twisting and turning to form the word ‘UTOPIA’, littered with cars and buses and explosions. Frozen in a moment, the scene is comical and sinister and video-game like. Placed on the steps of the concourse, the miniaturised scale loses itself to the larger surrounding. The barricades further isolates the work, losing the charm of dioramas or scaled models where looking up close is personal and an intimate experience.

The work could jolly be a statement about industrialisation, rapid urbanisation and the destruction of the natural habitat. As the highway, in stasis, breaks in multiple places there is a sense of relieve and hope that nature might reclaim itself.  The sight of crushed metal in accidents once prompted American artist Andy Warhol to make a series of silkscreens based on car crashes. The crushing of metal, epitomised by the Autobots and Deceptacons in Transformers bashing themselves silly, has a certain perverse satisfaction. The desire to see machine’s fail could be a manifestation of deeper human instincts for self-preservation, a la Matrix style.

The work has successfully depicted the desires and explosive anxieties of the modern individual, bound by simplistic views that roads are synonymous with progress. Visit any sprawling city, efficient roads are a measure of the efficiency of the city and its economy.

Humanity is often tested in a traffic jam. Be stuck in any traffic jam and you can feel the anxiety and pent up frustration, waiting to explode at the slight provocation from the neighbouring unruly driver. Manners are sometimes lost, and we become machines, as much part of the vehicle’s carburetor. The work critiques the means and ends of the artist’s version of urbanised, corporatised Utopia, and warns us of apocalyptic ends if we pursuit it bending minds and will.

Esplanade Concourse, 14 Jul – 3 October 2010

6.0 of 10 stars

End notes:

1. Land Transport Authority Road Length Statistics for 2009, accessed on Aug 9, 2010, http://www.lta.gov.sg/corp_info/doc/Road%20length%20-%20lane-km%20(2009).pdf

2. Video featured in the Installation can be found here:
http://vimeo.com/13675660