Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art
Shanghai’s Power Station of Art

One of the things that I have not done nearly enough of during my almost two years (!) in Shanghai is go to the many art shows that pass through the city. I often intend to and then don’t make it, or only hear about them when there are two days left and it’s a weekend and I know the show will be packed and I just don’t feel like dealing with it. And quite honestly, I know that my taste in art would be considered pretty pedestrian by people who actually know something about art—and that sometimes other people get excited about works, and I look at the pieces and think, “Huh?”

All of which is to say that I made a special effort to go to a show that I’d heard good things about, but that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to get much out of it. “Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave” is at the Power Station of Art, a converted power station (obviously) on the remote South Bund that opened in 2012 as the first state-run museum of contemporary art. Cai is an artist who works in a variety of media, but is best known for his fireworks displays (such as at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics) and “gunpowder drawings” (I’ll explain in a minute).

“The Ninth Wave,” as I heard in this story by Frank Langfitt of NPR News, explores China’s pollution crisis through art. As you might expect at at state-run art museum, certain politically sensitive topics can’t be touched—Ai Weiwei isn’t going to have a Power Station show anytime soon—but the government has at least paid lip service to the idea that it’s as concerned as anyone else about China’s environmental problems, so “The Ninth Wave” is politically safe. It’s also, I found, a really, really good show.

The titular piece caught my eye as soon as I entered the ticket line, and I kept turning to look at it as I waited for the clerk to find change for the two women ahead of me. “The Ninth Wave” is a large fishing boat whose deck is filled with (fake) seasick animals—a kind of dystopian Noah’s Ark.

“The Ninth Wave”
“The Ninth Wave”

Poisoned by their environment, the animals are draped over the side of the boat in various poses of agony. Some seem to be asleep/dead, while others appear to be mid-seizure. They’re an unhappy—but certainly compelling—crew.

Unhappy animals
Unhappy animals

Animals enjoy a happier existence in the next work that I saw, “The Bund Without Us,” one of Cai’s gunpowder drawings.

“The Bund Without Us”
“The Bund Without Us”

As far as I can tell (we never made gunpowder drawings at Summer Arts Camp!), Cai creates the drawing by using lines of gunpowder on paper as his “ink,” varying the thickness of the lines based on the effect he wants to create. When everything is prepared, he then lights the gunpowder, and the resulting explosions burn the image onto the paper. “The Bund Without Us” is a long horizontal scroll, reminiscent of classical Chinese landscape paintings, that imagines Shanghai’s Bund having been taken over by nature. Monkeys clamber over the historic buildings, while oxen take a swim in the adjacent Huangpu River.

Detail of “The Bund Without Us”
Detail of “The Bund Without Us”

It made me think of abandoned colonial-era buildings (such as some at Moganshan) that have become rotted and overgrown; it seems somehow appropriate that those isolated old structures in the wilderness would be gradually consumed by the wildlife around them, but it’s so much harder to envision the Bund succumbing to that fate. An interesting mental exercise, though.

More gunpowder works in the next major room I visited, this one featuring four large square porcelain panels, each one linked to a season of the year. The porcelain reliefs depict fairly standard seasonal symbols—chrysanthemums in fall, birds on bare branches in winter—but each one has been blackened by the fireworks that Cai exploded atop it.


A video of this plays in the room, (over-)dramatically showing the moment of ignition and the snap crackle pop of fireworks on porcelain. It’s pretty amazing, as some of the flower petals and such are exceptionally thin, but didn’t get broken by their contact with the fireworks. As the exhibit brochure explains, this series “Delicately [balances] the violent, instant impact of the gunpowder explosion and the frailty of the porcelain.” It also leaves the whole room smelling faintly of sulphur.

Smell was the first sense that the next piece, “Head On”—my favorite—hit as well, as I walked into a noticeably warmer room and my nose picked up a vaguely unpleasant animal odor. The immediate sensation was kind of like having a dog breathe on me, but it was mild enough that I didn’t notice after a minute.

“Head On”: wolves fly through the air with the greatest of ease ...
“Head On”: wolves fly through the air with the greatest of ease …
... and then crash headfirst into a glass wall.
… and then crash headfirst into a glass wall.

I was too busy taking in the 99 wolves distributed around the room—arranged in a circle that extended from wolves walking on the floor, to flying in the sky, to hurling themselves into a glass wall at one end of the room, to lying crumpled on the floor, to picking themselves back up and rejoining the line to leap into the air. I don’t know how good an explanation that is, but the piece is stunning. It’s also the most politically sensitive work in the show; though Cai designed it for a 2006 exhibition in Berlin, and the glass wall is meant to represent the Berlin Wall, it’s not hard to link the wolves’ blind following of the pack and willingness to rejoin it even after suffering the consequences to the political campaigns of the Mao era, or even today. “Head On” is amazing, and I went back to see it again after I walked through the rest of the show (possibly a first for me and art).

There are several movie exhibits, but the only one I sat through for any length of time was of Cai’s fireworks extravaganzas, which are pretty amazing. Still, I got the feeling that some of the movies were kind of filler material—the Power Station is a huge space.

The last major piece that I saw was “Silent Ink,” an enormous pond dug out of the Power Station floor and filled with jet-black ink that comes down from the ceiling in a small waterfall.

“Silent Ink”
“Silent Ink”

This was the piece that I felt I “got” the least … is the ink supposed to remind the viewer of oil? Is this what ponds will look like in a post-industrial age? While the brochure had offered pretty direct explanations of what the other pieces were trying to say, on “Silent Ink” it was, um … silent.

Reading through the brochure now, it seems that I somehow missed “Air of Heaven,” described as being inside the Power Station’s chimney. Not sure how I overlooked it, but these things happen.

As you can probably tell, I thought “The Ninth Wave” was amazing and definitely recommend seeing it if you’re in Shanghai between now and its closing date of October 26. Getting to the Power Station is kind of a hike, but it’s absolutely worth it.

[I wish the photos in this post were better, but I forgot my regular camera and had to make do with my phone. Sorry.]

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