Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: First solo Met exhibition by a contemporary Chinese artist
Naomi Takafuchi & Elyse Topalian
Cai Guo-Qiang, the acclaimed Chinese-born artist known internationally for his elaborate sculpture installations and gunpowder projects, has created a site-specific exhibition for the 2006 season of The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The four works comprising Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument were inspired by the dramatic setting of the Roof Garden, an open-air space atop the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing that offers spectacular views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, and by the artist’s reactions to issues of present-day concern.
“Cai is, without doubt, one of the most inventive artists working today in New York and indeed internationally, and this exhibition will mark many ‘firsts’ for the Metropolitan,” commented Gary Tinterow, who is Engelhard Curator in Charge of the Museum’s Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, and who invited Mr. Cai to create the installation. “Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof will be the first solo exhibition by a contemporary Chinese artist to be held at the Metropolitan. His method of combining traditional Chinese motifs and materials to comment on contemporary life makes his work particularly relevant in the context of an encyclopedic museum, and especially moving to anyone who has been touched by the September 11, 2001, attack on New York.”
Works on view will include the 15-feet-tall glass Transparent Monument, at the base of which lie replicas of dead birds. “Like a transparent sculpture or canvas,” says Cai, “the glass encases the city and park, fusing them with the work as one, and bringing out the relationship between the city, or civilization, and park, or nature.” A second sculpture, Nontransparent Monument, the antithesis of Transparent Monument, is a multi-part narrative relief sculpture in stone replete with vignettes depicting life after September 11, 2001, that range in subject from the tragic to the humorous. The installation will also feature Move Along, Nothing to See Here, a pair of life-sized replicas of crocodiles, cast in resin and pierced with several thousand sharp objects confiscated at airport-security checkpoints, that will loom over the Roof Garden space.
Finally, an ephemeral sculpture titled Clear Sky Black Cloud will consist of an actual black cloud appearing above the Roof Garden at noon on Tuesday through Sunday of each week, bursting like an inkblot in the sky and then dissipating slowly in the air. This recurring work, made from miniature black-smoke shells, will set a new and symbolic clock for New York City for the duration of the exhibition.
Born in 1957 – the son of a historian and landscape painter in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province – Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced sigh gwo chang) developed a desire to become an artist at an early age. As a teenager, he was absorbed in the martial arts and even acted in some kung-fu movies. Educated in the traditions of Western art, Cai first encountered Western contemporary art as China entered an era of intense social change. Not able to find a school offering classes in contemporary art, he studied stage design from 1981 to 1985 at the Shanghai Drama Institute. He also experimented with gunpowder to foster spontaneity and to confront the suppression that he felt from his controlled artistic and social climate. At the end of 1986, when he moved to Japan, he began to explore the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that led to experimentation with explosives on a massive scale, and the development of explosion events, exemplified in his renowned series Projects for Extraterrestrials.
Cai achieved international prominence while living in Japan, and his works began to be shown widely around the world. His approach draws on a wide variety of symbols, narratives, traditions, and materials, such as astrophysics, feng shui, Chinese medicine, dragons, roller coasters, computers, vending machines, and gunpowder. Among his many awards to date is the Golden Lion Prize of the 48th Venice Biennale International. Cai moved from Japan to the United States in 1995, and now lives in New York with his family.