Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Cai Guo-Qiang's haunting installations reflect on nature—and the horrible things people keep doing to it.
After setting sail a month ago, an old boat full of real-looking stuffed animals* has arrived inside Shanghai's Power Station of Art.
It's just one of many pieces from Cai Guo-Qiang's new solo exhibit, The Ninth Wave, which contemplates man's destruction of nature. It's a theme not lost on Shanghai residents, who live with frequently poor air quality and last year saw 16,000 dead pigs float down the Huangpu river after farmers in a neighboring province dumped them into the water.
The boat full of 99 dead-looking "animals" (they're made of styrofoam and goat hide)* set sail from Cai's hometown of Quanzhou (he now lives in New York) on July 12 and arrived in China's biggest city five days later. Though it's the centerpiece of the exhibit at the state-owned museum, the city government never actually issued the permits needed to complete the trip. “The boat came in anyway,” Cai tells The Art Newspaper.
The boat and its cargo are, understandably, the stars of the show. But similarly powerful moments can be found in other installations. One, titled Silent Ink, is a 2,690-square-foot lake carved out of the museum floor. Instead of water, the lake is filled with black ink and the path alongside it is filled with what looks like rubble. It's a scene that reflects traditional Chinese landscape painting as much as is does the country's modern-day land and water pollution.
Another large-scale piece, the 88-by-13-foot Bund Without Us, imagines what Shanghai might look like after humans depart and nature takes over again. (The cityscape is drawn with gunpowder, a material the artist is perhaps most famous for using.) And underneath the former power plant's massive chimney, three baby dolls sitting on a swing in an especially haunting piece titled Air of Heaven.
After years of public outcry against the country's shameful stalling on efforts to curb dangerous pollution levels, Cai's exhibit comes as officials have gone so far as to declare a "war against pollution" earlier this year. The Ninth Wave is a reminder that the war can't start soon enough.
"Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave" is on exhibit at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai through October 26, 2014.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the artist's animals were taxidermied. They are in fact more like stuffed animals, largely constructed out of styrofoam and goat hide.