Translation by Kelly Ma ’08, Project Manager at Cai Studio, New York
Walking by the Granoff Center absent- mindedly, you are startled by two life-sized crocodiles, supported by wooden stilts, writhing in mid-air with their jaws wide open and their steely black eyes staring back at you from the window display at the Cohen Gallery. You peer closer and realize why the frozen beasts are squirming in pain; hundreds of small hand knives, box openers, and other blades are stabbed into their scales. Although Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition is titled Move Along, Nothing to See Here, that’s about the last thing the work makes you want to do.
Cai’s show, which opens in the Cohen Gallery this Friday, is meant to launch Brown’s Year of China. Although he is a permanent resident of New York City, he refuses to speak English, instead hiring a full-time Chinese translator. He is best known for his work with gunpowder—both in his pyrotechnic performances and his burnt drawings—and for life-sized animal sculptures, which range from the Granoff’s crocodiles to tigers and to wolves. The show at the Cohen Gallery includes exemplary works from all of these mediums, presenting students with unprecedented access to the work of one of the most lauded artists of the past decade. Cai spoke to the Independent about his work.
The Independent: Move Along, Nothing to See Here is the first of several events organized by Brown to commemorate its Year of China. Through this series, Brown wants to celebrate the cultural and historical richness of Chinese tradition. As a native Chinese artist now living in the United States, what would a Western celebration of China look like to you?
Cai Guo-Qiang: Today [September 12] is the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11 yesterday. When Chinese people celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, they also think about what 9/11 meant to the West. We can say that everyone in the world can share the same sentiment and judgment. Americans may also understand the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, where everyone in the family gathers together, and lovers and friends separated by geographical distance get in touch. It is just an exchange of culture, to communicate with each other.
Indy: Your work seems to strike a balance between Eastern references—such as scroll paintings and gunpowder—and your own Western background Could you expand on how these seemingly antithetical influences–East versus West–play out in your work? Do you think that the perhaps oversimplified binary of East and West is fitting within the global setting of your work?
CG: There is always the element of paradox in my work, but this conflict is what is real and has its own charm. Sometimes I feel that I am a pendulum, very regularly rocking between the West and the East, classical and contemporary, social issues and formal and materialistic focus, etc. Sometimes I feel my job is like a tunnel, where I travel in time. However, I am in search of something that is more tolerant of all.
Indy: This exhibition also comes hand-in-hand with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Some of your past work has subtly referenced terrorism – specifically the pieces Inopportune: Stage One (2004) and Inopportune: Stage Two (2004), which are visually analogous to Move Along, Nothing to See Here. As people take the next few days to commemorate the terrorists attacks, what response did you intend your works to illicit?
CG: On the day of September 11th this year, China Central Television also reviewed the 9/11 events. According to my friends, the CCTV also referenced my work on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It has been quite a while since the 9/11 events, and the art world still finds it hard to develop work around the subject or even what to think of it. Although I created some works because the events had a lot of impact on me, my general focus was still the debate on the confusion and loss in the human society. Of course, the purpose of an artist is not to use his work to place the blame on terrorism; sometimes artists just want to open up the topic and view from different perspectives with the rest of the world. It is my pleasure, nevertheless, to present at the Granoff Center at such an opportune time around the 10th anniversary.
Indy: You studied theatrical set design before you formally began your career as an artist in Japan. This seems fitting, since many of your well-known works—using pyrotechnics and life size animals—have some dramatic shock value. Is this your intention? Are your works like Move Along, Nothing to See Here meant to just be visually jolting or is there some underlying purpose to their aesthetic aggressiveness?
CG: When I first started, I was learning to paint; it was only later that I wanted to pursue contemporary art. Whether it was the set work in the propaganda drama troupe or my studies in stage design at the
[Shanghai] Theatre Academy, all of my projects naturally led to the sense of time in my work. Audience participation and team collaboration, especially, contain a lot of the dramatic effect. Additionally, my socialist upbringing, the tidal waves of political movements in my youth, and art being more of a wake-up call to the less-cultured masses, all affected me. My work is thus more of a popular taste, with a stronger visual language.
Of course, I like to describe myself as a little boy who enjoys to play with large firecrackers to scare people (he laughs, startling others and myself). I think I do an okay job at frightening people. Anyway, I am just a fun artist.