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Silent Spring on the Huangpu River

Reflecting on the Work of Artist Cai Guo-Qiang

  • The installation “The Ninth Wave” sails down the Huangpu River, July 17, 2014 in Shanghai. The installation, which consists of an old fishing vessel loaded with stuffed toy animals, is inspired by last year’s incident in which 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River. (ChinaFotoPress photo)
    The installation “The Ninth Wave” sails down the Huangpu River, July 17, 2014 in Shanghai. The installation, which consists of an old fishing vessel loaded with stuffed toy animals, is inspired by last year’s incident in which 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu River. (ChinaFotoPress photo)
  • An installation view of “Silent Ink,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, Shanghai, 2014. (Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio)
    An installation view of “Silent Ink,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, Shanghai, 2014. (Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An installation view of “The Bund Without Us,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio)
    An installation view of “The Bund Without Us,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • Fireworks explode next to the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, August 8, 2008. (Photo by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)
    Fireworks explode next to the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, August 8, 2008. (Photo by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Artist Cai Guo-Qiang, May 11, 2010. (Photo by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
    Artist Cai Guo-Qiang, May 11, 2010. (Photo by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
  • A family photo shows Cai Guo-Qiang, right, and his wife, Hong Hong Wu, in 1978. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
    A family photo shows Cai Guo-Qiang, right, and his wife, Hong Hong Wu, in 1978. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
  • Cai Guo-Qiang with his mother, Wan Yuyan, and father, Cai Ruiqin, circa 1959. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
    Cai Guo-Qiang with his mother, Wan Yuyan, and father, Cai Ruiqin, circa 1959. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
  • Cai Guo-Qiang’s father, Cai Ruiqin, a calligrapher and traditional painter, in a family photo from the1970s. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
    Cai Guo-Qiang’s father, Cai Ruiqin, a calligrapher and traditional painter, in a family photo from the1970s. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An early work by Cai, “Space No. 1,” hung in a gallery in Tokyo, 1989. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
    An early work by Cai, “Space No. 1,” hung in a gallery in Tokyo, 1989. (Photo courtesy Cai Studio)
  • “Transparent Monument,” on exhibit on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 2006. (Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio)
    “Transparent Monument,” on exhibit on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 2006. (Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An installation view of “The Ninth Wave,” at the Power Station of Art gallery in Shanghai, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
    An installation view of “The Ninth Wave,” at the Power Station of Art gallery in Shanghai, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An installation view of “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows,” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008. (Photo by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
    An installation view of “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows,” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008. (Photo by David Heald, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
  • “Two Crocodiles,” on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006. (Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio)
    “Two Crocodiles,” on exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006. (Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • A sculpture titled “Move Along, Nothing To See Here” by Cai, on display at the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 24, 2006. The exhibit was called “Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument.” (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
    A sculpture titled “Move Along, Nothing To See Here” by Cai, on display at the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 24, 2006. The exhibit was called “Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument.” (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
  • An installation view of “Head On,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
    An installation view of “Head On,” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An installation view of “Head On,” at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2009. (Photo by Erika Barahona-Ede, courtesy FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)
    An installation view of “Head On,” at the Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2009. (Photo by Erika Barahona-Ede, courtesy FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)
  • Cai Guo-Qiang introduces his extended family from Quanzhou at a public event at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 24, 2008. In conjunction with his exhibit, “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” and in celebration of the Chinese Lantern Festival, the artist offered a special tour of the exhibit for Chinese-born adoptees and their American families. (Photo by Cheng-Shu Li, courtesy Cai Studio)
    Cai Guo-Qiang introduces his extended family from Quanzhou at a public event at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 24, 2008. In conjunction with his exhibit, “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” and in celebration of the Chinese Lantern Festival, the artist offered a special tour of the exhibit for Chinese-born adoptees and their American families. (Photo by Cheng-Shu Li, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • The creation process of “Danger Book: Suicide Fireworks (Exploded Prototype),” 2007. (Photo by Tatsumi Masatoshi, courtesy Cai Studio)
    The creation process of “Danger Book: Suicide Fireworks (Exploded Prototype),” 2007. (Photo by Tatsumi Masatoshi, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • Visitors look at a piece by Cai, created by gunpowder, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, July 24, 2014.  (ChinaFotoPress photo)
    Visitors look at a piece by Cai, created by gunpowder, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, July 24, 2014. (ChinaFotoPress photo)
  • Red and green pyrotechnics explode as part of ‘Remembrance,’ part two of “Elegy: Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave,” on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art gallery, August 8, 2014. (Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio)
    Red and green pyrotechnics explode as part of ‘Remembrance,’ part two of “Elegy: Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave,” on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art gallery, August 8, 2014. (Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • An installation view of “Air of Heaven” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
    An installation view of “Air of Heaven” at the Power Station of Art gallery, 2014. (Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio)
  • Cai Guo-Qiang, right, ignites firecrackers on “Summer,” a gunpowder drawing on porcelain, as part of the installation “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter” in the Great Hall of the Power Station of Art, 2014. (Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio)
    Cai Guo-Qiang, right, ignites firecrackers on “Summer,” a gunpowder drawing on porcelain, as part of the installation “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter” in the Great Hall of the Power Station of Art, 2014. (Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio)

This past July, Shanghai’s Huangpu River—known for more than a few incidents involving dead floating pigs—played host to artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s ark-like menagerie of decrepit animals, “The Ninth Wave.” The vessel was destined for the Power Station of Art, a renovated power plant and China’s first state-funded contemporary art museum, where it would be the centerpiece of Cai’s environmentally focused solo exhibition. According to Cai Studio, “The Ninth Wave” was inspired by Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1850 painting of shipwreck survivors, barely holding on to life, “expressing human helplessness in the face of nature’s unforgiving forces.”

Orville Schell, in his profile of the exhibition for The New Yorker, describes one of the most affecting pieces in the show, “Silent Ink,” which features a bleak pool of black ink which Cai hollowed out from the gallery floor:

An overhead nozzle shoots jets of ink down into the pool creating both a soothing waterfall-like sound and strange patterns on the glistening surface of the black “pond.” And finally, around this interior excavation, Cai has piled up all the concrete rubble and bent steel rebar, jack-hammered out of the floor, to look something like mountains in a classical landscape painting.

“Silent Ink” harkens back to the traditional landscapes with calligraphy that influenced Cai as a boy watching his father, Cai Ruiqin, paint. But it also echoes one of his best-known other works, “Heritage,” in which he arrayed a veritable U.N. of ninety-nine animals from all continents drinking peacefully together around a tranquil blue pond. Even without animals, the point in “Silent Ink” is hardly lost: China’s reality is that many lakes and rivers have been so polluted that they are too toxic even for industrial use, never mind for animals to drink.

Cai seems to suggest that the ark-bound animals in “The Ninth Wave” are also doomed. But last week as I stood in awe before “The Bund Without Us,” Cai’s massive gunpowder rendering of a post-human Shanghai, I saw a bit of optimism in his vision of our ecological future. Tigers, monkeys, and crocodiles somehow survived whatever mass extinction wiped us away, and they playfully reclaim a cityscape devoid of human life. –Leah Thompson

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Arts