1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128
Thomas Krens, the polarizing director of the Guggenheim Foundation for twenty years, plays a central role in the story of Cai Guo-Qiang’s massive spectacle of an exhibition currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. With last week’s surprising news that he would be stepping down as director, journalists began to eulogize his tenure, once again reminding us of the motorcycles and the Armani suits that will certainly remain as symbols of the excess that characterized his brash leadership style.
The current retrospective (co-curated by Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art) is no different. As a vocal proponent of Cai Guo-Qiang’s theatrical art, my first impression on walking though the revolving doors was one of amazement. Confronted first by the cars hanging from the ceiling with fluorescent bulbs piercing them, and then by tigers with arrows that fill the second ramp. On the third ramp, an installation originally commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin invites us to weave in and out of the line of wolves that will eventually crash into a glass wall. According to the wall text, this piece is an allegory for the Berlin Wall, synthesizing local and global histories.
Also drawing on recent history, Cai recreates “New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard,” a Communist propaganda sculpture from the late 1960’s. Occupying almost an entire ramp, a team of Chinese sculptors will fabricate this piece throughout the duration of the exhibition, exposing the process to the multitudes of visitors who will inevitably pass through the museum. He continuously insists on this process of audience engagement, whether incorporating paddleboats steered by four year olds and live snakes into his installations or forcing us to navigate past tigers pierced by arrows.
Best known for his work with gunpowder and fireworks drawings, I can’t help but think of the politically charged link to Cai’s prominent participation in the Beijing Olympics. As a prelude to the coming months, this is one spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.