Friday, June 04, 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.

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