Heat and Light

A few weeks ago, I was at the Seattle Art Museum doing my bi-weekly Info Desk shift, and staring up at Cai Guo-Chung’s masterwork, Inopportune: Stage One, I realized what ugly, ugly art it is. I’ve worked at the SAM almost since its reopening, and have had the dubious pleasure of spending many hours looking at this installation; some art gets richer and more complex the more time you spend with it, other art, like Cai’s work, alas, does not.

The museum purchased this massive installation for its main foyer sometime during the reconstruction. Clearly, it was intended to be a showstopper, and to fill the cavernous entry hall that, with its very tall ceilings and clean narrow office-building windows, was begging for something out of the ordinary to catch the eye and draw in visitors. Inopportune: Stage One certainly serves this dual purpose, and it is also most certainly spectacular, if we can count the spectacle of flashing lights and huge enormous cars hanging pendulously over the heads of meek museum-goers. The installation includes nine white Ford Tauruses, all arranged in a leaping, tumbling arc through the gallery space. There are great rods erupting from each vehicle, strung with flashing lights, meant to create a cartoon-like freeze frame explosion. The idea is that it is one car that leaps into the air, cartwheels and explodes, and then lands safely on the opposite side of the space, virtually whole.


It is dazzling and impressive the first time you see it, for those first five, ten, fifteen minutes of gazing at these cars, suspended in space, flashing, exploding, wondrous in Christmas-like glory. They are nearly as impressive for the first few minutes every time I see them again, having been away from the museum for a few weeks. It really is quite the spectacle, and it is hard not to respond with instantaneous awe.

I’ve read through our descriptions of Cai’s work, the layers of meaning intended in the work: there are nine cars, which is an important number in Chinese culture (might symbolise the afterlife – I can’t remember). The cars are all white, another symbol of death (there’s something here having to do with yin and yang), and that they are all Ford Tauruses – the most suburban of Middle America cars – it’s supposed to symbolise the death of America’s great industrial age. (It is ironic that since Cai created this installation some years ago, the Taurus has since been taken out of production. The death of America’s great industrial age, indeed.) There are correlations to reading the whole work like a Chinese scroll, which must be unfurled, and there are connections to Chinese New Year, fireworks, and gunpowder. There is also lots of East versus West here, too. There is, I’m sure, lots to talk about, but these layers of meaning seem so flat upon extended viewing. Maybe the problem is that since I am a white American girl, I lack the cultural lexicon necessary to read the Chinese and Asian elements that give this work its depth. But, I can’t help feeling like the work is, beyond its initial impact, fundamentally two dimensional. Indeed, when I work at the desk, I find myself looking away from it, because the flashing lights become a mild annoyance after a while; who wants to look at a Christmas tree year-round?

I realized the last time I was working that, despite the Fourth-of-July quality of this installation, it fails to leave any lasting emotional impression, and this is why I have come to dislike it so much. Looking at art is a continual process of discovery. We think of looking, gazing, as fundamentally passive activities, but I think that great art requires the investment of time and thought along with an active mode of viewing to really grapple with an art object. Really great art yeilds layers of meaning (not always intended by the creator), and gives up more substance over this period of active viewing. I find that this art falls apart under scrutiny, rather than forming a greater cohesion. It is not just about the intellectual message that Cai is trying to impart — there must be a great aesthetic draw, too, and I don’t think it’s present. Or at least, not in a way that is appealing to me. And maybe that is sufficient: modern art is often about the question of what makes art Art, and what grants it status. I see very little beauty in this art, and I am surprised to discover how much that matters to me. I want that emotional impact, I want to stand in awe in front of installations, to feel overcome, to weep. Instead, as I commented to one of the volunteers, the work is a decent representation of what I imagine China to be like: very industrial, lots of flashing lights, with very little aesthetic beauty. All flash, no fire.

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~ by ecp on October 11, 2007.

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