Shanghai Expo, Cai Guo-Qiang and the Chinese Dreamship
By Don J. Cohn
For the inaugural exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai in May, Cai Guo-Qiang, the prize-winning Chinese artist best known for pyrotechnic displays on paper and in the air, will fill the six floors of the museum with an exhibition entitled “Peasant Da Vincis,” consisting of submarines, flying machines and robots made by Chinese farmers and collected by Cai over the past decade.
Opening on May 4, the exhibition of both scientific and science-fiction creations offers a novel, contrasting view of the sort of Chinese technological achievements that will be trumpeted at Shanghai Expo 2010, which opens on May 1 under the title “Better City, Better Life.” The Expo is being touted as China’s second major international coming-out party this century, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Cai was responsible for the opening and closing fireworks displays, later revealed to have been a video pastiche.
The Rockbund Art Museum, built in 1932, was redesigned as a contemporary art space by British architect David Chipperfied. The renovated museum is part of a development project headed by the Rockefeller Group that has cost several hundred million US dollars, involving six city blocks and seven heritage buildings in one of the most valuable slices of real estate in Asia.
Cai’s rural-based da Vincis are for the most part backyard handymen, rather than inventors, and lack the creative, futurist vision of their Italian Renaissance namesake, who in addition to painting the Mona Lisa, left notebooks filled with detailed sketches of sophisticated crossbows, hydraulic pumps and even a helicopter and glider. They may be likened to weekend tinkers who base their low-budget projects on comic books, science fiction movies and actual blueprints available to hobbyists from libraries and online searches. In the context of the glitzy museum, however, the word “peasant” sets off the same degree of embarrassment, irony and smiles as the outrageous impracticality of the devices on show.
In an interview with ArtAsiaPacific in his New York studio in March, Cai described the sometimes tortuous negotiations involved in the acquisition of the dozens of items in the collection from their inventors, and his sensitivity to the issue of official exploitation, something land-bound Chinese peasants have dealt with for centuries in their relationships with landlords and officials. Cai explained to the lenders that he conceived of the show as a “satellite” to the Expo, on a more human, individual level, pointing out that the inventors’ ships and would-be airborne vehicles are as much a form of creative and patriotic expression as the intercontinental ballistic missiles and computer chips flaunted by the Chinese defense industry, and that their projects deserve just as much attention as their more up-to-date, marketable counterparts.
At the same time, one of several semi-political slogans that Cai will paint in huge
characters on surrounding buildings, “Peasants—making a better city, a better life,” subverts the Expo tagline and directs attention to the problem of rural migrants in Chinese cities—some 300 million people whose contribution to China’s economic growth and prosperity is grossly overlooked and under-rewarded, creating social inequalities that constitute a potential threat to social stability.
A number of homegrown da Vincis have been attracting local and national media attention in China for years, which is how Cai first learned about the phenomenon. Cai even included a flying saucer, built by a farmer from Anhui province, that spun around noisily and hissed to an anticlimactic halt in the China Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, under the direction of artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.
This rural scientific entrepreneurialism has its roots in the Four Modernizations—in agriculture, industry, science and technology and national defense, first proposed in the mid-1970s as an antidote to the political extremism of the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, it reflects Cai’s long-term interest in rediscovering and reusing a number of China’s great historical inventions, particularly gunpowder and paper, that kept China centuries ahead of the West in terms of technology until around the 15th century.
While generally welcoming these efforts, local Chinese governments have expressed concern that homemade aircraft might pose safety hazards over heavily populated areas. A crashed plane, which killed its builder during a test flight, will occupy the first floor of the exhibition.
The exhibition will include the onsite construction of a model aircraft carrier, a wry comment on Beijing’s still-secret plans to build the first such Chinese warship, but
a proposed rocket that peasants were to have erected in the museum’s courtyard will not see the light of day. In late March, the Shanghai government declared that peasants would fail to meet local engineering safety standards for a structure 20 meters tall.
To fill the museum’s contemporary galleries, Cai commissioned the manufacture of several robots, which will re-enact the iconic gestures of Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Damien Hirst. The pseudo-Pollock flicks gobs of paint on the floor in a clumsy, repetitive manner, but comes entirely free of the American painter’s angst and addictions.
In China’s rush to become a world power, traditional ideology and values, beginning with Mao Zedong’s catechismic reliance on the holy trinity of proletarian “workers, peasants and soldiers” as the foundation of the State, have been systematically subverted by the blind pursuit of wealth and endemic official corruption. Cai’s attempt to redress a grotesque imbalance in Chinese society, creating an environment in which even a peasant can become a Renaissance man, goes some way to restoring a sense of innocence and idealism long absent from a society torn by the tensions of greed and inequality.