Serious Firepower

Site-specific environments can come off as gimmicky. Instead of relying on fully realized principles for a project, artists use novelty and expanse as a crutch. One exception to this unfortunate rule is the work of Cai Guo-Qiang. The showpiece (I think this is the third time it has been installed) of his Guggenheim show, which opened just a few days ago, strikes a perfect accord between stylized aesthetics and thematic depth.

Titled Inopportune: Stage One, the installation simulates the detonation of a car bomb. Nine identical cars (white Chevy sedans in this evolution) are hung in midair to give the impression of a single car’s trajectory as it hurtles through space. Each car is pierced with dozens of light rods that blink in riotous colors.

At face value, the idea of taking artistic inspiration from a car bombing produces twinges of unease and doubt. First is the issue of glorifying global terrorist tactics. Another is the idea of reveling in gratuitous violence. A third is translating the horror and violence of a bombing into an art piece that is not bogged down in literalism and gore or deadened abstraction. With a skillful and sensitive artistry Cai has succeeded in steering clear of all of these traps, producing a work that is arresting, charged and wondrous.

Photo credit: Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, 2004. Nine cars and sequenced multichannel light tubes. Dimensions variable. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006. Exhibition copy installed at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald.

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