Thursday, June 03, 2010

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Peasant da Vincis

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Peasant da Vincis

By Amy Chou

The little introduction by Zhang Yiwu in the brochure states, “They are humble, yet hold incredibly lofty aspirations. Their inventions are crude and simple, the product of individual stubbornness and focus, but they have an incredible appeal.” Zhang’s statement along with Cai Guo-Qiang’s title of the exhibition, Peasant da Vincis, perfectly sets the stage for the creations put on display in the Rockbund Art Museum. The purpose of the exhibition is to focus on the creative minds of nine individual Chinese peasants. Cai spent years collecting inventions from the peasants and now displays several from his collection in hopes that his exhibition will encourage discussion about the “social transformation of hundreds of millions of peasants in the modernization process in China and their huge contributions to urban development.” In sync with the Shanghai Expo’s theme of “Better City, Better Life”, the exhibits theme is “Peasants-Making a better city, a better life.”

In order to enter the buildings, I had to walk into an open plaza where the surrounding buildings were either dilapidated or under construction. On the facades of one of the buildings was painted in large orange calligraphy of an almost Mao-era-like slogan “Peasants-Making a better city, a better life.” Across the plaza was a blue retaining wall painted with large white calligraphy saying “What’s important isn’t whether you can fly.” Those slogans painted in bright colors on dark backgrounds caught my attention immediately. The large bold characters had a huge impact on me in that they felt like a heavy weight that could not be ignored.

After buying my ticket in the main Rockbund Art Museum building, I entered the exhibit. In contrast with the light feeling lobby that is painted white, the first floor exhibition room is painted black. The mood changed quickly as my eyes were met with mechanical scraps suspended in the air in a fishlike design: an engine for the head and strips of bent wire for the body and the tail. Those mechanical parts were salvaged from Tan Chengnian’s deadly plane crash in 2007. I felt very somber seeing Tan’s wrecked plane, but the way those parts were suspended in the air also added a light touch. It felt as though the plane was now a fish flying in the air. To me, it felt as though Tan was flying freely.

On the second floor, my eyes were met with white walls covered in black Chinese calligraphy written in different sizes with no particular page format. Cai had painted each peasant da Vinci’s name, his hometown, and his inventions. The second room contained 55 handmade white bamboo silk kites, each with a projection of the stories of the inventors. It looked like the kites were really flying in perfect synchronization. Looking at them and the stories projected made me feel like I was flying with them through time.

The third floor was a little less dreamlike in that the room looked like a bit of a mess. However, the room was still very dreamlike in that interesting looking robots were scattered all across the room. Since I had just missed the demonstration period, the robots were all turned off and looked like they were frozen in mid-action.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth floor consisted of one lofty room with inventions suspended at different levels in the air that could be viewed differently from each floor. The fourth floor’s floor was covered for the most part with real grass and flower seeds were planted, too. The only music playing was the natural sound of chirping from live birds fluttering about in the room. Cai had intended to create a “lyrical and fairytale-like environment” to express the “frame of mind behind the peasant inventions.”

Each invention was very unique. The inventions displayed were either aircrafts or submarines. The concept of the largest submarine by Li Yuming called Twilight No.1 is of a giant fish. My favorite is also by Li Yuming called Twilight No.6, but this one is a very small submarine that is beautifully designed with patterns made from nails.

The second part of Cai’s exhibition is in the lobby of the National Industrial Bank building. The moment you enter, you are met with a 20m-long model of an aircraft carrier with small planes on deck. Cai commissioned Tao Xiangli to construct it from scrap metal on site. The inside of the carrier is outfitted to look like a small village theater screening the movie Our Century directed by Artavazd Peleshian, which is about all of the unknown sacrifices and failures behind the famous Soviet space expedition. Off to the side in shadow next to the old bank vault is Tao’s submarine frozen in ice. Inside the bank’s vault is a video screening of Out of the Present directed by Andrei Ujica tells the story of astronauts trapped in space, while on earth, the Soviet Union collapsed. On the opposite end of the main lobby is a video screening of Cai’s journey from the very beginning to the realization of his project: Peasant da Vincis.


Information taken from the Rockbund Art Museum brochure:


Rockbund Art Museum

20 Huqiu Road, near North Beijing Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai



10:00am-6:00pm, Tuesday-Sunday (last ticketing 5:30pm)

Closed Mondays


Regular: 15RMB

Student: 10RMB

Getting there:

Subway: ten minutes on foot from Exit #2 of East Nanjing Road Station on Line 2

Bus: Lines 20, 21, 25, 939, 928, 65, 61, 220, 19, 167, and Tunnel Line 9

Note: No pictures allowed.

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