Blow Ups

Shanghai’s the Power Station of Art is hosting The Ninth Wave, a solo exhibition of work by Cai Guo-Qiang (1957-), through to October 26. It’s … explosive.

The name of the show, and its central exhibit, is taken from a painting (1850) by Russian artist Ivan Aivazavosky (1817-1900). This image of inundating disaster is of clear relevance to the show, but it also serves as a pretext and screen for an adoption of signs that Cai Guo-Qiang invests with singular (and cryptic) evocations. Deep rhythms of time, power, and number are a consistent theme flowing through the exhibition.

The Ninth Wave (2014) is a re-purposed boat, crowded with (99) stuffed animals. It was floated down the Huangpu to be installed in the show, making it the memorial of an event — a signature of Cai’s work. Superficially, it’s a Noah’s Ark, and an icon of ecological calamity, but this barnacled hulk, with its crew of traumatized inhuman survivors, also satirizes the dramatic narratives — whether comic or tragic — that are employed to frame the profound, ruinous tides of cosmic transition.

Cai Guo-Qiang has seared his name on the cultural imagination in fireworks, pursuing an incendiary path to neotraditonalist aesthetic restoration. Working with gunpowder is the revival of a traditional Chinese artistic medium. Cai modernizes its potential for public spectacle, in ‘Explosive Events’ or ‘Pyrotechnic Explosion Projects’ which are stunningly documented in the show. Yet, among the things Cai explodes is media compartmentalization. The fallout from his work includes char-marked images, production diagrams, and video recordings. His detonations spread across the entire multidimensional domain of visual aesthetics. Time itself is envisaged as a system of explosions, burns, and debris.

The Bund Without Us (2014) epitomizes his usage of gunpowder as method for the production of static images. The process of creation is staged as an event, in which a complex, controlled explosion ‘draws’ the picture in gunpowder burns. The image is left as an aftermath. An enactment of devastation feeds naturally into a narrative of apocalyptic disappearance. (The title references an ecological catastrophe fable.)

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (2014) was created through an innovative re-combination of traditional media, depicting the cycle of the seasons in gunpowder-scorched porcelain. Rhythmic regularity emerges from a violent process of combustion, excavating a sublime order of recurrence from both nature and history.

Silent Ink (2014) has ripped up a large gallery space to create an ink-filled pool, choked with multiple allusions, from the trite to the abysmal. Once again, a traditional medium is unpredictably modernized, pouring continuously into a colossal installation that evokes urban redevelopment, chemical pollution, and quotidian ravaging in general, while opening onto deeper cosmic themes of harsh time-cycles and spontaneous restorations. (The title, of course, echoes an environmentalist classic.)

Head On (2006) is a huge lupine loop, constructing a frozen dynamic in three dimensions. Ninety-nine wolves model social history as a cycle of collective leaps, crises, and dazed re-beginnings. (As in The Ninth Wave, with its 99 mammalian survivors, Cai escalates traditional Chinese numerology to figure a point of catastrophe and reversal.)

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Catch the wave, if you can.

Power Station of Art, 200 Huayuangang Lu, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai (86 21 3110 8550), Web.

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