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A FISHING barge strewn with what look like animal corpses occupies the atrium of Shanghai’s Power Station of Art (PSA). This macabre Noah’s Ark (pictured above) is the bleak vision of Cai Guo-Qiang, an avant-garde artist who enjoys government favour yet whose works sometimes explore controversial themes. His exhibition, “The Ninth Wave”, opened on August 8th in what was once the Nanshi Power Plant, Shanghai’s version of London’s Tate Modern. Two years ago the city’s Communist Party committee spent nine months and 400m yuan ($65m) transforming the 19th century industrial site into one of the country’s most prestigous state-run galleries.

Mr Cai is an unusual figure in China’s contemporary-art world. He was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, an eastern coastal town. He emerged with the wave of rebel artists, including Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun, who began rebuilding comtemporary art after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Mr Cai’s training at the Shanghai Theatre Academy still influences his work, which explores social issues through audience participation, aesthetic beauty and spectacle. Like many contemporaries he later moved abroad to study art in ways not then possible in China; from 1986 to 1995 he lived in Japan. Though most drifted back Mr Cai never returned. He lives in New York.

Geographical distance has not severed his ties with home. He is “uniquely and heroically capable of working within the system to his own end,” says Philip Tinari, who directs the Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art in Beijing. During the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, 29 of his giant firework footprints blazed across the sky. An allegiance with the state has not cost him credibility abroad. Last year he exhibited in Brazil and Brisbane. He put 50 couples in glowing, floating tents on the Seine river in Paris during Nuit Blanche, an annual night-time arts festival.

In Shanghai one week before “The Ninth Wave” opened Mr Cai staged one of his trademark pyrotechnical art-events entitled, “The Bund Without Us”. (The fleeting chaos created by gunpowder and other explosives have long fascinated him; in “Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10” a flaming trail “extended” the Great Wall by 10km into the Gobi desert.) Mr Cai spent hours sowing gunpowder and layering paper and bricks over a 30-metre-long rendering of the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic riverfront. After an ear-splitting detonation the landscape turned post-apocalyptic; the familiar facades smudged and charred.

Decades ago Mao dictated that art must serve the state. But controls have relaxed, especially since the early 2000s. “I think it is fuelled by the fact that artists have stopped seeming dangerous,” says Mr Tinari. The emergence of a thriving contemporary-art market has helped too.

But the authorities still set limits. When the PSA exhibited works from the Centre Pompidou in 2013 officials considered some works by Man Ray too erotic to display. The culture ministry decided Andy Warhol’s silkscreen pop-art portraits of Mao could not be included in a touring retrospective that began in 2012. In April organisers of a show at the PSA about the history of Chinese contemporary art had to remove the works of Ai Weiwei, the artist-dissident who lives in Beijing under government surveillance.

Most of the works in “The Ninth Wave” survey humankind’s destructive relationship with nature. For Shanghai residents the animal barge recalls an incident in 2013 when 16,000 rotting pigs were hauled from the city’s Huangpu river. Another work, “Silent Ink”, is a 250-square-metre lake of black ink filling a hole dug into the gallery floor. The theme is topical; environmental degradation is a grave public concern. It is also a subject about which the authorities allow relatively free debate.

Few artists in China have the courage or the means to denounce the party explicitly. Many prefer to play safe and enjoy the benefits of what has become a billion-dollar industry. This is blasphemous to some. In a column for The Guardian newspaper Mr Ai wrote a scathing critique of a Chinese art show at London’s Hayward Gallery, likening it to enjoying food at a Chinatown restaurant. “People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering,” he wrote. In a society that restricted individual freedoms and violated human rights, anything calling itself creative or independent, he said, was “a pretence”.

Mr Cai is more pragmatic. In Chinese society the negative impact of government control looms large, he says. But the impact of the market, he notes, can be as insidious. From the Renaissance to Mr Warhol, artists worldwide have pursued their precarious careers by making compromises with religious, political or commercial power. Overseas Mr Ai is the darling of contemporary Chinese art, but few in his home country hear about his work. At the PSA it is Mr Cai who has the solo show.

 

Link to The Economist online