China's Pollution Crisis Inspires An Unsettling Art Exhibit

Aug 23, 2014
Originally published on August 23, 2014 11:48 am

When 16,000 dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai last year, it inspired a lot of questions about China's environmental conditions and a lot of disgust.

Now, those pigs have helped inspire an arresting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art.

The solo show, called The Ninth Wave, opened this month and features the work of a top, Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. His installations are grand, provocative and unsettling.

They're also popular, bringing in more visitors — over 20,000 so far — than any previous exhibit in the museum's brief history.

The signature work is a full-size fishing boat with a barnacle-encrusted hull that sits in the museum's cavernous atrium. Draped across the gunwales are animals from across the world: tigers, pandas, leopards, even an elephant. They all appear sick.

Some visitors immediately grasp the message.

"I feel Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to show that the survival of animals in the natural environment is like our own survival," says Rachel Wang, a Shanghai art teacher, who brought her 10-year-old son, Jerry, to see the exhibit. "When we run into difficult situations, we all become very helpless."

Another visitor, Chen Xiaomei, a retired manager at a big real estate development company here, is disturbed by what she sees.

"I felt in my heart that these animals are very pitiful," says Chen, 66, who wears pearls and a bright orange blouse. "They are about to die and they cling to Noah's Ark, trying to survive."

Inspired By A Russian Painting

Cai Guo-Qiang says the boat was inspired by a 19th-century Russian painting called The Ninth Wave, which depicts survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a drifting mast as waves crash in the background. Cai says when he was working on the boat, he also thought about last year's tide of dead pigs.

"My feeling was like everyone's," says Cai, who lives in New York and spoke by phone while visiting Beijing. "This was so unacceptable, so many dead pigs floating on the river. It's an outrageous thing."

The animals on the boat aren't real. Cai had a factory make them out of wool and Styrofoam.

He delivered the boat on a barge, which created a striking image as it sailed past Shanghai's gleaming financial district, home to some of the world's tallest buildings.

"Because Shanghai has the Huangpu River, I thought it called out for a boat," says Cai, 56. "In addition, the museum is beside the river, so if I use a boat like Noah's Ark to ship the animals, the feeling is very good. The message of the art work can reach the city and the masses."

The Power Station of Art opened in 2012 and is China's first state-run, contemporary art museum. It's housed inside a converted power plant, which has more than two-and-a-half football fields' worth of exhibition space and resembles London's Tate Modern.

The plant's former smokestack nearly rises to the height of the Washington Monument and has become something of a Shanghai landmark because after dark, it turns into a giant, light-up thermometer.

Huge Installations

Some artists would struggle to fill the museum's huge galleries, but Cai operates on a scale that seems a good fit. One installation, called Silent Ink, features a waterfall of black ink plunging from the ceiling and splattering into a 5,300 gallon lake that's been carved out of the museum floor.

The lake is ringed by mounds of crushed concrete and rebar and looks like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting built with industrial waste. A sign warns that the ink's smell may become overpowering for visitors.

Among Cai's many works here, one stands out as overtly political. It's called Head On, and it features dozens of wolves leaping across a huge room and crashing into a glass wall. The work debuted in Berlin in 2006 and speaks to the dangers of ideology and pack mentality. Some visitors, though, see parallels in China's chaotic political history.

"Some may think this is about the Berlin Wall, but I think it's about problems in China," says Li Hongyu, 40, as he carries his young son in his arms. "It's a reflection of the Cultural Revolution."

The Cultural Revolution was a political nightmare that ran from 1966 to 1976. Whipped up by Mao and his supporters, children informed on their parents and students beat their teachers. An estimated 1 million people died.

Despite the show's tough themes, Li Xu, the museum's deputy director of planning, says the local government didn't object to the content.

"When I accompanied officials to see the exhibition, a lot of them liked it because Chinese public media can no longer avoid discussing environmental problems," says Li. "Look at many newspapers, many magazines, they all discuss pollution and how to control it."

Not everyone immediately grasps the artist's message, though. Back by the fishing boat, a pair of students pose for photos with the animals.

"They're cute!" says Sherry Wan, who's on a return visit from her studies in Canada. "Don't you think so?"

When it's suggested she look a bit closer, Wan's smile fades and she acknowledges that — upon reflection — the animals don't look so good after all.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Remember when those 16,000 dead pigs went floating down a river in Shanghai last year? The event prompted a lot of questions about China's environmental policies and a lot of disgust. And now the animals have helped inspire a riveting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum. The show is called "The Ninth Wave," and it's by one of the top Chinese contemporary artists Cai Guo-Qiang. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here in the atrium of the Power Station of Art, and the first work you see is a giant boat. It's covered in barnacles, and there are all these animals on it. You've got a leopard, a panda, a giraffe, and they're all sick. They are kind of hanging off the edges of the boat. I'm talking to people who've come here to kind of get their impressions of this. And a moment ago, I was talking to a woman named Rachel Wang. She's actually an art teacher here in Shanghai.

RACHEL WANG: (Through translator) I feel that Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to show that the survival of animals in the natural environment is like our own survival. When we run into difficult situations, we all become very helpless.

LANGFITT: Like many visitors, Chen Xiaomei, is disturbed by what she sees. Chen, who wears pearls and a bright orange blouse, is a retired manager of a big real estate development company here.

CHEN XIAOMEI: (Through translator) I felt in my heart that these animals are very pitiful. They're about to die, and they cling to Noah's ark trying to survive.

LANGFITT: The artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, says he thought about the tide of dead pigs while he was constructing the boat. Cai lives in New York and spoke while visiting Beijing.

CAI GUO-QIANG: (Through translator) My feeling was like everyone's. This was so unacceptable. So many dead pigs floating on the river - it's an outrageous thing.

LANGFITT: The animals draped across the boat aren't real. Cai had a factory make them out of wool and Styrofoam. He delivered the boat, a real fishing vessel, from his hometown in South China on a barge. It made for an arresting image sailing past the gleaming towers of Shanghai's financial district.

GUO-QIANG: (Through translator) Because Shanghai has the Huangpu River, I thought it called out for a boat. In addition, the museum is beside the river. So if I use a boat like Noah's ark to ship the animals, the feeling is very good. The message of the artwork can reach the city and the masses.

LANGFITT: The Power Station of Art opened nearly two years ago and is China's first state-run contemporary art museum. It's housed inside a former power planet and resembles London's Tate Modern. Most of the work in this exhibit focuses on the environment. And this one's called "Silent Ink." It's a waterfall of black ink, and it plunges from the ceiling into this huge room and splatters into a 5,300 gallon lake carved out of the museum floor that's roomed by mounds of crushed concrete and rebar. And it kind of looks like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting built with industrial waste. The smell of ink actually makes me feel kind of nauseous.

I'm in another gallery, looking at videos of some of Cai's pyrotechnic explosions for which he's well known. And across the way is the most directly political installation in the whole exhibit. It's called "Head On," and it has these dozens of wolves, and they're actually leaping across the ceiling and then crashing into a glass wall. Now the work debuted in Berlin in 2006, and it's about ideology and pack mentality. But one of the visitors I was talking to, a guy named Li Hongyu - he's a local teacher, and he's here with his son. Li - when he looks at this, he sees echoes of China's chaotic political history.

LI HONGYU: (Through translator) Some may think this is about the Berlin wall. But I think about problems in China. It's a reflection of the Cultural Revolution.

LANGFITT: The Cultural Revolution was a political nightmare that ran from 1966 to 1976, whipped up by Mao and his supporters. Children informed on their parents. Students beat their teachers, and an estimated 1 million died. Despite the show's tough theme, Li Xu, the museum's deputy director of planning says the local government was cool of it.

LI XU: (Through translator) When I accompanied officials to see the exhibition, a lot of them liked it because Chinese public media can no longer avoid discussing environmental problems. Look at many newspapers, many magazines - they all discuss pollution and how to control it.

LANGFITT: Not everybody immediately grasped the artist's message here. I'm back down at that boat with all the sick animals. And I was just talking to a couple of students, Marina and Sherry, and they were actually taking pictures of each other in front of the animals. And this was their reaction.

SHERRY: They're cute.

LANGFITT: They're cute?

SHERRY: Yeah, don't you think so? For example, that tiger - I just told my friend, look, look, his eyes - it's just so funny, I mean.

LANGFITT: How do you think the animals are doing? Do you think they're doing well or not so well?

SHERRY: Seems not, no.

LANGFITT: Not so well.

SHERRY: Yeah, yeah.

LANGFITT: "The Ninth Wave" has already attracted more than 20,000 visitors, and it has another two months to go. So far, it's the museum's most popular show. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.