Leave it to me to wait until the second to last day to catch the staggeringly beautiful exhibit, I Want to Believe at the Guggenheim Museum. I say “staggeringly” because I literally had to keep myself from toppling over while I craned my neck up the main rotunda with my mouth gaping to view the centerpiece of the show: nine cars with streaming light fixtures protruding from the frame while being suspended in the air.
My first impression was that I was standing within a 3-dimensional Eadweard Muybridge photograph, chronicling the movement of a kinetic event. It seemed to be a portrayal of a singular event: a car being propelled into the air, exploding and then settling back down on the top floor.
Delving further into the exhibit caused me to realize that the explosion was the main focus of the piece, and not the cars. To Cai, the violent and sudden act is what he wanted to explore. Through the viewing of the rest of his work, including The Century with Mushroom Clouds and Project for Extraterrestrials, it’s clear that the message is in his use of gunpowder and other explosive materials. The video footage of his fireworks-esque environmental art displayed how he’s viewing the explosions as an act of creation, forming shapes and paths within the clouds of smoke and fire.
I’m not sure if his use of gunpowder and fireworks is a nod towards his Chinese heritage, but it is a potent medium to convey his ideas of spontaneous creation through a source normally associated with destruction.
Though the more I stewed on this thought, the more his concept made sense. There have been other instances of such ideas, including the mythical phoenix reborn from its fiery ashes and the Big Bang theory. Birth through death or nothingness.
His views of a sudden release of force also relates to some ideas of evolution. The general perception behind evolution is that change is gradual and takes eons to occur, but some changes are spurred by catastrophic events or drastic genetic mutations.
His gunpowder and paper artwork struck me as evidence towards the idea of the controlled chaos. His explosions were meticulously designed and staged at each point. Although I couldn’t decipher the Chinese writing, I got the impression that the notes surrounding each stage of every piece was a way to convey how each moment was scrutinized. Yet Cai brilliantly allows for the organic and unpredictable path to occur. He knows he cannot fully control the outcome, but that’s the point. (While viewing a video of an elaborate chain-linked explosion, I had an inexplicable image of Wile E. Coyote setting off some scheme that always careened off into unexpected results.)
It’s not about control, but progress. He spurs the evolution but doesn’t seek to confine it. The car exploding and propelling up to the top floor isn’t about where it ends up but about the fireworks that happen during the event.
I also wonder if his choice of the automobile had to do with the technology of the combustion engine but that’s for me to conclude.
I’m also curious to know what his affinity for the number 9 could be. There are 9 cars, and he used 9 tigers and 99 wolves in his past Inopportune pieces. There’s a wealth of iconography behind the number which can and has been explored. I know that it’s a number that John Lennon and Charles Manson were obsessed with. I leave it up to others to decide which of those two to associate Cai with.
In the end, I concluded that Cai’s view is that of optimism. Despite gunpowder’s potential for destruction, he uses it as a means of creation and jolting us into change. Whether it leads to something good or bad, that’s left to each of us to decide, but he wants to believe that it’s the former.
As a side note, I swear that I will experience a scaffolding-less Guggenheim before I leave New York, even if it kills me. Between this and the MoMA’s Richard Serra show, I feel blessed to be able to live in this city and catch such amazing work.