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An "Other" Point of View:       Table of Contents

CAI GUO QIANG TAKES "THE RENT COLLECTION COURTYARD" FROM CULTURAL REVOLUTION MODEL SCULPTURE TO WINNER OF THE 48TH VENICE BIENNALE INTERNATIONAL AWARD.
by Britta Erickson

On June twelfth, Cai Guo Qiang won one of the three International Awards presented to individual artists participating in the 48th Venice Biennale. His award-winning installation, "Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard"(detail: Fig. 1) reproduces a key sculpture from China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the "Rent Collection Courtyard" (detail: Fig. 2). Playing off the temporal and spatial displacement between the original and the reproduction, Cai's piece draws attention to the ultimate insignificance of human constructions, however grand their intent. It can be read on many levels, pointing to the futility of individual effort (the installation is intended to disintegrate before being completed) as well as to the ultimate failure of China's movement to create an ideal Socialist state (the installation marks the end of the Socialist Realist sculpturetradition in China). In addition, there is a sardonic twist, as a monumentof Socialist Realist sculpture is coopted for the entertainment of a bourgeois and largely Western audience, with (obviously) great success!

Cai Guo Qiang's oeuvre is rich and varied, but he is best known for his site specific gunpowder events, and for his installations employing traditional Chinese medicines. The gunpowder works began in the mid-1980s,when Cai created a series of paintings by burning gunpowder on the surface of painted canvas. Works such as "Traces of Ancient Explosions" (Fig. 3) juxtapose the controlled activity of painting with the uncontrollable force of fire, highlighting the dichotomy between humankind and cosmic forces,while bringing them into harmonious conjunction in a work of art. Cai subsequently developed a technique for "drawing" on paper with gunpowder, and now makes gunpowder sketches as an integral part of his proposals for major explosive events. Such sketches, along with photographic records, are often the only tangible remnants of these ephemeral events.

Cai's pyrotechnic events range from the grand-scale "Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10: Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by10,000 Meters" (1993; Fig. 4) to the modest "Nevada," from "The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Projects for the 20th Century" (1996; Fig. 5). The former entailed laying a fuse leading from the end of the Great Wall, ten thousand meters out into the desert. Upon igniting, the fuse's light traveled into outer space, where it may eventually be observed by extraterrestrials. For the "Century with Mushroom Clouds," Cai burned a mere pinch of gunpowder to form a tiny mushroom cloud-the most significant visual sign of the twentieth century, according to the artist-in various poignant locales. While the "Century with Mushroom Clouds" is sobering, Cai Guo Qiang more frequently engineers celebratory conflagrations. The"Celebration from Chang'an" (1994; Fig. 6), for example, burned twelve thousand liters of sake in observation of Kyoto's twelve thousandth anniversary: the burning sake's shifting blue flames mesmerized the assembled crowd, opening the observers' minds to the pure beauty of elemental forces.

Awareness of the power of elemental forces jolted through those celebrating the opening of the Taiwan Museum of Art, when a trail of gunpowder exploded through the museum, entering via the roof, passing through the interior, twining around columns, and finally exiting ("No Destruction, No Construction," 1998; Fig. 7). The shock of sudden confrontation with such destructive power can open a space of fresh awareness, memorable and wonderful for the viewer.

For various logistical reasons (bureaucratic, financial, technical), many of Cai Guo Qiang's projects are unrealized. Among these is a gunpowder event designed for the 46th Venice Biennale, "Sinking and Rising" (1995;Fig. 8). The plan was to create an explosive wave beginning in Venice's lagoon, moving across the water towards the Piazza San Marco, and then continuing across the plaza. In this instance, the layers of bureaucracy rendered the project impossible. Instead, for the 46th Venice Biennale, Cai Guo Qiang created the performance and installation piece, "Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot" (Fig. 9). On his return to Venice, Marco Polo had departed China through Cai Guo Qiang's hometown of Quanzhou. Several centuries later, Cai Guo Qiang brought a Chinese fishing boat to Venice, sailed it down the Grand Canal, and presented Venice with traditional Chinese healing treatments, symbolizing the spirit of China that Marco Polo had forgotten to bring back with him. He performed an acupuncture treatment on the ailing water of the lagoon, and provided a vending machine filled with bottles of Chinese herbal tonics. (See the similar "Internal and External Universe: Water Wood Metal Fire Earth,"Fig. 10)

Traditional Chinese medicine is important to Cai Guo Qiang as it emphasizes the harmonious interrelationship between humans and nature. Gunpowder explosions underscore the power of cosmic forces, and gunpowder events provide a brief link between humankind and the vast universe. An additional recurring metaphysical theme of Cai's oeuvre is that of impermanence, which locates human activity within the sphere of cosmic cycles. This theme is most clearly manifest in his "Wall of Grief-From the Engines of Four Hundred Cars" (1992; Fig. 11), a work made from the metal of scrapped cars, and destined to be remelted after its exhibition and formed once more into cars, as part of the automobile industry's endless recycling of metal. The artist commented: "The car is destined to be a scrap in the end, and so is my work. As time goes by, my work comes out, dies away. My work explodes and melts. The relationship between the existence and the production of a work is like that between Buddha and a statue of Buddha. A statue of Buddha is ordinarily no more than a drawing of Buddha. On the contrary, Buddha exists eternally, comes and goes leaving no traces, nor bearing a figure . . . . " ("Cai Guo Qiang 'From the Pan-Pacific'" [Iwaki City Art Museum, 1994], p. 127.)

As mentioned above, "Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard" comments on the impermanence of human constructions, be they physical or societal. History is no more than an endless succession of events in which individuals, governments, and their creations are destined to pass, replaced by others.

During China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the "Rent Collection Courtyard" was acclaimed a model sculpture in the service of the revolution. The first version of this sculpture, completed in 1965, consisted of a series of life-sized clay figures arranged in the mansion of a former landlord. The figure of the landlord dispassionately surveyed an array of starving peasants struggling to pay the portion of grain demanded as rent, including mothers carrying babies dressed in rags, and other pathetic figures indicative of the horrors of life under the former feudal society (Fig. 12). An anonymous collective created the sculpture, which was then reproduced for display in major cities throughout China, with additional sets sent as gifts to Albania, North Korea, and North Vietnam. Aside from the ubiquitous statues of Chairman Mao that appeared throughout China at this time, no other sculpture approached the prominence of the"Rent Collection Courtyard."

Cai Guo Qiang commenced work on his reproduction of the "Rent Collection Courtyard" in early 1999. Enlisting the help of a crew of nine Chinese sculptors, one of whom - Lone Xu Xi - had worked on the original "Rent Collection Courtyard" as a youth, Cai filled a barn-like room in Venice's Arsenale with the activity of recreating the original installation (Fig.13). For Cai Guo Qiang, the emphasis was on the process of replication, rather than the finished product: the team of sculptors created frameworks of wire and wood for most of the figures, but completed only about half, filling out the forms with the addition of clay and glass eyes. For props, they used whatever disused machinery was readily available, mimicking the practice of the earlier team of sculptors. (Compare Figs. 14 and 15.)

The "Rent Collection Courtyard" was considered the Chinese masterpiece of Socialist Realist sculpture; the 1999 reproduction earned the International Prize at the Venice Biennale. Thousands of people visited both versions each day, admiring the sculptors' skill and pondering the concepts behind the work. While the appearance of the individual figural sculptures comprising the "Rent Collection Courtyard" has changed minimally despite the twenty-five years between original and current versions, the sculpture's meaning has obviously changed a great deal.

The Cultural Revolution "Rent Collection Courtyard" was meant to endure asan educational tool, reminding people of the dismal life under feudalism. Life under the socialist state was not as prosperous as had been predicted, and thus there was a need for propagandistic reminders of the fact that life could be even worse. The government published numerous images of the "Rent Collection Courtyard," including a poster representing a group of school children gazing solemnly upon the sculpted figures' tortured visages. Whether or not members of the sculpture's audience had personally experienced the hardships of feudalism, they were intended to identify with the figures portrayed there.

Cai Guo Qiang's version of the sculpture will not outlast the summer. Theclay will dry out, crack, and fall off the wire matrix. In producing what is almost certain to be one of the final sculptures in the Socialist Realist manner, Cai Guo Qiang has coopted that style in order to create a metaphor for the failed promise of socialism in China. Superficially it appeared to work, but in the end, it crumbled. Although this is a powerful message, Cai's sculpture does not have a didactic purpose. It is an open-ended work, and there is no expectation that all members of its audience will derive the same meaning for it. Some viewers will grasp thevarious levels of impermanence represented there. Others will pick up on the irony of a work created by an anonymous collective being recast for the glory of an individual artist. And some will recognize in themselves a reflection of the very bourgeois capitalists denounced in the original sculpture (Fig. 16).

"Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard" would be marvellous and meaningful wherever it was exhibited: cycles of history, the passing of historical eras, are of universal interest. But this particular work highlights the changing circumstances and roles of art creation and art consumption. In choosing to present it to one of the most sophisticated art audiences in the world, Cai Guo Qiang has demonstrated his superlative sense of strategy. Often Cai's creations are site-specific, designed for their physical location, and frequently taking the history of that location into account. "Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard" is site-specific in a more subtle sense, devised to make those most practiced at decoding art performa little decoding on their own roles regarding that art. With such powerful and multivalent meanings, it is a rare and wonderful creation, marking Cai Guo Qiang as one of the most important artists of the late twentieth century.

 

 


Fig. 1
Cai Guo Qiang
"Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard": Trio


Fig.2
Team of Sculptors from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts
"The Rent Collection Courtyard," 1965, clay (Dayi, Sichuan): Trio from "Examining the Rent" section




Fig. 3
Cai Guo Qiang
" Traces of Ancient Explosions"
1985
180 x 125 cm
gunpowder and oil on canvas


Fig. 4
Cai Guo Qiang
" Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10: Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters"
1993
event with gunpowder explosions, Gansu Province
(photo: Masanobu Moriyama)


Fig. 5
Cai Guo Qiang
" Nevada"
from "The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Projects for the 20th Century"
1996
11.1 x 14.9 cm
postcard
(photo: Hiro Ihara)


Fig. 6
Cai Guo Qiang
"Project for Heiankyo 1200th Anniversary: Celebration from Chang'an"
1994
event with 1,200 liters of sake sent from Chang'an, burned to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of Kyoto.
(photo: Masanobu Moriyama)


Fig. 7
Cai Guo Qiang
"No Destruction, No Construction-Bombing Taiwan Museum of Art"
1998
gunpowder event, Taichung, Taiwan
(photo: Hiro Ihara)


Fig. 8
Cai Guo Qiang
"Sinking and Rising"
1995
unrealized project for Venice Biennial
(photo: Yamamoto Tadasu)


Fig.9
Cai Guo Qiang
"Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot"
1995
performance and installation, Venice Biennial
(photo: Yamamoto Tadasu)


Fig. 10
Cai Guo Qiang
"Internal and External Universe: Water Wood Metal Fire Earth"
1994
vending machine, Chinese herbs, medicine bottles, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
(photo: Cai Guo Qiang)


Fig. 11
Cai Guo Qiang
"The Wall of Grief-From the Engine of Four Hundred Cars Project for the 'Place for the Birth of Contemporary Art and Criticism'"
1992
aluminum, cement, hay, diaper, IBM-Kawasaki City Gallery, Kanagawa
(photo: Cai Guo Qiang)



Fig.12
Team of Sculptors
"The Rent Collection Courtyard,": "Bringing the Rent" section


Fig. 13
Cai Guo Qiang
"Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard": Crowds (of reporters) watching the sculptor, Lone Xu Xi, at work


Fig. 14
Cai Guo Qiang
"Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard": Overseer about to strike a peasant

 


Fig.15
Team of Sculptors
"The Rent Collection Courtyard": Overseer about to strike a peasant from "Measuring the Grain" section

 


Fig. 16
Cai Guo Qiang
"Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard": Landlord


Team of Sculptors
"The Rent Collection Courtyard": "Bringing the Rent"
Landlord

 

 
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