It’s not too often an artist takes on the weighty issue of the environment without placing a substantial amount of blame on humans. Of course, in most instances this blame is well placed. In my experience, more often than not the viewer is left with a depressed feeling. As the artist attacks them, the audience goes on the defensive. This does little to encourage a change in attitude to counter the very issue the artist is examining.
Not so with The Ninth Wave, the latest exhibit by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Although he lives and works in New York, Cai returns to his roots in Shanghai, partnering with the newly opened Power Station of Art for this massive installation. By way of background, Cai is a Golden Lion recipient from the 48th Venice Biennale and has been honored with a U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts award.
While grounded in the reality of modern-day environmental issues, the works focus on what Cai cites as a traditional Chinese philosophy: “…humanity’s longing to return to a primordial landscape and spiritual homeland.” Upon entering the art gallery, itself a testament to repurposing outdated buildings, a massive boat filled with life-sized animals strikes the viewer. A veritable Noah’s Ark, “The Ninth Wave” depicts animals sea-sick from the tumultuous waves of their time. The piece is taken from Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1850 painting of men drifting among ocean wreckage. It is less about man’s impact on the environment, but rather the never-ending push of nature to have its way and develop equilibrium.
By far the most striking piece in the entire exhibit is Cai’s “The Bund Without Us.” For any visitor to Shanghai over the past 150 years, the Bund represents all the opulence of this once vice-filled city. Its majestic stone buildings are a tribute to capitalism, and stand to this day as representations and temples to its deities. “The Bund Without Us” depicts the riverside esplanade “…after the departure of humans and several hundred cycles of seasons.” Using explosives on canvas as his medium of choice, one would assume Cai is sending through an apocalyptic message. In reality, the piece is less doom-and-destruction, and more an examination of where the Earth will go if nature takes its own course. For me, this is a hopeful piece showing how man and nature can again begin communing as we did in the not-so-distant past.
Overall, the viewer is left with a feeling of hope that ultimately nature will be able to withstand and fix any problems humans might create. The explosives so evident in Cai’s work can thus be considered celebratory rather than cautionary.
The Ninth Wave is ongoing through October 26th at the Shanghai Power Station of Art.