Kunsthalle Wien. Vienna, Austria, 2002


Even if the universe were to annihilate mankind, Pascal tells us, man would still be much greater than that which kills him, since he knows he is to die. The universe knows nothing, says Pascal; our dignity lies in our thought. Despite this tragic awareness of death, the myth of man as the centre of all things has fostered Western philosophies and driven the Wests scientific explorations, artistic revolutions and colonial conquests. Underlying these we always find the will to dominate and a desperate craving to go beyond the known. Technological development has played an essential part in this ambitious, relentless drive, fuelled by a blindly optimistic faith in boundless progress. Yet nowadays that infallibility is being questioned. Technology poisons and destroys in the name of development, and makes man an ever more artificial, dependent being.

Today, theories of chaos, the decline of the notion of the future and the new currents in postcolonial thought are questioning the moral, aesthetic and ideological supremacy that the West has held for centuries, and querying the conviction that its achievements are absolute and positive. Yet even so, the orthodoxy of thought associated with the globalisation of the media and the inordinate voracity of transnational capitalism are forming a tenebrous shadow play and continuing to extend their ferocious tentacles to exploit the resources of the planet. Awareness of this continuing devastation has led to weariness, nihilism and despair, though it is also heightening the need to defend sustainable growth and to reconsider, from a new ethical standpoint, the meaning and function of science, art and thought as privileged forms of becoming acquainted with, celebrating or transforming the world.

Cai Guo Qiang has reflected deeply on the complexities of the contemporary scene, travelling the worlds pathways in many directions geographically, aesthetically, conceptually and he has, through his art, established countless bridges linking different realities. His creations have brought the East and the West closer together, as well as the human and the divine, the industrial and the spiritual, the terrestrial and the cosmic. His work has also sought to soothe the pain and heal the wounds of the body viewed as a house, and of the house and the city in relation to the forces of the earth, through the teachings of ancestral Chinese medicine and the theories of feng shui. Armed with a clear awareness of his own times, Cai Guo Qiang has analysed the twentieth century by evaluating the ambivalent power of atomic energy, which has liberated the productive forces of matter but which has also yielded formidable destructive power, and drawn a new planetary landscape that has depicted the earth as a mushroom field, in the words of the artist.

The critical irony in the titles of some of his projects clearly points to his concerns and to the need to find a balance between realities whose meaning is unbalanced. Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot (Venice, 1995) is doubtless one of his most captivating projects, since Cai Guo Qiang himself inverted in time and space the journey of the mythical Venetian and brought to Venice medicinal herbs and other remedies not present in the riches that Marco Polo gathered in China. Among his numerous Projects for Extraterrestrials, two are particularly significant: No. 7: Rebuilding the Berlin Wall (Berlin, 1991), in which he serves a reminder that even if there are no physical walls, other frontiers still exist; and No. 16: The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too (Hiroshima, 1994), recalling the dropping of the atom bomb in the Second World War. Other projects, such as Calling (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1999), allude to the need to connect the human and the divine, even if making the connection involves, among other possibilities, using old telephone directories for New Mexico.

The generic title of his exhibition in the Vienna Kunsthalle, Im the Y2K Bug, personifies and refers to the millennium bug, that invisible enemy that will affect domestic computers and, more dramatically, the computers that control armament and communications systems all over the planet. Cai Guo Qiang explores this collective hysteria and highlights ambiguous feelings of fear and fascination at the potential breakdown of the normal functioning of society. In his installation of that name, Cai Guo Qiang has created an artificial lawn hiding a complex network of land mines, all connected up to and controlled by a computer. There are over 200 switches in total, which trigger when the viewers walk over the lawn and randomly spark off small explosions in the form of atomic clouds. The who, the when and the where of the explosions cannot be worked out exactly from relations of probability. The ideas of danger, uncertainty and the imminence of accident define this artificial field as a metaphor for our world, which has become a mine-field that might blow up at any time.

In many of his works, the presence and active intervention of the viewers is essential for the formal completion of the work and for giving it meaning. Spring Breeze is an environment in which the breeze is produced by fans installed in the middle of the room. This false spring breeze allows the visitors to fly little kites and to experience the illusion of a bright day out in the country. Memories of childhood, the fantasy of idealised nature and the pleasures of play are rediscovered in a highly technological context in which the lightness of the kites contrasts with the noise of the fans. The desires, hands and actions of the viewers are necessary elements in giving life to this project. Individual bodies and movements become sculptural materials. The laughter, improvisations and uncertainties of the people trace rhythms in this imaginary space that Cai uses to fuel a relational aesthetic in which the important thing is not so much the objects themselves but rather the interrelationships that are created.

Big Bang, Small Bang brings together video images of war, fireworks, natural explosions and projects arranged by Cai using gun powder, with major differences and worrying similarities between them all. In Change of Seasons, the viewers can consult documents on his previous projects while drinking tea. In all, this exhibition displays a wide range of his work, and a chance to become acquainted with his obsessions and his enormous creative versatility. Nowadays we are not living at a time of high structural stylistic energy; labels classifying artistic phenomena come and go rapidly without ever gelling into clearly differentiated formalisations. Nowadays there is no one single direction or a main narrative, and so Cai Guo Qiangs polymorphic capacity to combine materials and concepts and to interpret the different places in which he works is a paradigm of the new situation being experienced by contemporary art and thought. Today the artist, like the curator, is bound up in the arduous task of uncovering and giving form to certain relations that affect the body of society, and to that end his spirit must be volatile and incisive, constant as the movements of the sea and yet unpredictable and intense like a meteorite. That is why Cai, when referring to his creative methodology, asserts that the material means he uses are unimportant, and the style is unimportant, and even the concept. The fundamental thing is to get to the heart of a situation. Replacing preconceived ideas and changing styles or materials are all perhaps necessary means for making no change at all, for trying to say the same thing, for seeking that unifying force that integrates art with the universe, Yin and Yang, and the artistic traditions of the East and the West.

In his reflections on cultural-exchange phenomena, Cai Guo Qiang contrasts the meaning that similar signs have in different contexts, wishing to bring them closer together and endow them with new meanings. The dragon, for example, which is an image of power and prosperity in the East, is seen in the West as a threat, as a destructive monster. In the fascinating Dragon Sight Sees Vienna project arranged on the evening of 6 November 1999, the dragon became a blazing metaphor representing the crowds of tourists who will visit the new Museum Quarter, an area in which the artistic energies and the historical memory of various institutions are concentrated. The dragon shone fleetingly in the Viennese night and marked out its fiery outline, resting on the metal skeletons of cranes. The fascination it exerted seduced and terrified thousands of spectators.

Cai Guo Qiang has worked over most of the world, and as a member of the diaspora of Chinese artists settling in the United States he has had direct experience of how the ideas of globalisation, the centre and the periphery are forged in ideological terms. In the new post-colonial order, the others are generally expected to speak of their otherness, their exoticism. Thus many Chinese artists have taken up prominent places in the western market at a time when the West needed to cure itself of the overweening power of its own logos and renew itself with the aid of other energies. For these artists, the challenge today is to go beyond the dual aesthetic of the mirror, and beyond the dialectic that forces them to focus on their ancestral culture as a harmless way of being exotic. Today the risk lies in analysing problems that are common to the new global society from a many-sided aesthetic of prisms through which various visions may be integrated. In this context, Cai occupies a privileged position as one who brings perspectives together and who links up traditions and identities.

When reflecting on the idea of artificial intelligence and how new technologies too can get ill and even create art, Cai Guo Qiang is forging a powerful metaphor on the society of our time. Earthquakes and other natural disasters have sometimes been taken as complaints from a humanised earth protesting at the damage inflicted on it by man. Devoured by his own hubris, man is creating artificial surroundings, transgenic foodstuffs, clones, robots and other forms of artificial life from which he has nonetheless been unable to eradicate the notion of death or the feeling of dread at the prospect of an accident. Accidents have spread from the everyday domestic sphere to means of transport, industrial production and computer control systems. Yet in addition to individual or collective accidents, the spectre of a total accident hovers over us: an uncontrolled chain-reaction explosion in nuclear arsenals, leading to the definitive extinction of the planet. We now live under this constant threat. Accidents no longer have a moral significance, though to placate our anxiety we turn to the old idea of punishment for the arrogance and titanic aspirations of man, or else we resign ourselves to the idea that they are the price of progress.

Art, as a way of creating images from our desires and fears, reflects the pain and perplexity felt today at this general lack of meaning, and it seeks momentary consolation in irony. As Octavio Paz said, the future had been reigning in the West since the eighteenth century, but today that idea of time is coming to an end. We are now experiencing the decadence of the future, and as Cai Guo Qiang shows us, we are inhabiting a random world in which seduction and terror, chaos and marvels all live together. In this world, chance and necessity engage in a dialogue seeking to guess who is the greater, who the more fearsome: man, capable of consciously destroying, or the universe, creating and destroying without knowledge, as Pascal said.

BARCELONA, November 1999