A couple of weekends ago, manaXi and I managed to catch ‘Unmanned Nature’ by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang on its final day on show at The Whitworth, Manchester. It was actually my first visit to the gallery since it’s £15 million extension, redesign and reopening (they’ve called it a “reinvention”), this week crowned ‘Museum of the Year 2015’ by the ArtFund.
A handful of friends currently work there and told me about specific aspects of the “reinvention” I must look out for…a highlight for me was the polished concrete handrail that is supposed to feel like a waterfall for those who are visually impaired. I’m a sucker for concrete anyway due to a love of Brutalism, so this made me happy. There were so many distinct details that made the hybridity of the old and new building something special…the concertina window at the end of the cafe, the seating that manaXi is lost in below, the posters on the back of the toilet doors telling you random facts about the gallery and gallery staff, the cavernous archival room on ground level…I could go on, but instead I’ll just encourage you to visit.
In 2008, during my days of working as Curatorial Assistant in the Asian Art Department at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, I was lucky enough to assistant on Cai Guo-Qiang’s retrospective exhibition ‘I Want to Believe’. An unforgettable moment in my career and the turning point in my focus towards Chinese contemporary arts. Therefore, I was incredibly excited and intrigued to see the installation of ‘Unmanned Nature’ (2008)…more specifically how it was installed in the space as his works on paper often need a generous viewing platform…which was certainly the case when on show at the Guggenheim.
First commissioned by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, ‘Unmanned Nature’ (2008) is a 45 metre-long, four metre-high gunpowder drawing. It is the first artwork to be shown in the Whitworth’s new landscape gallery (context of the work intentional with it being a “landscape” gallery?) and also the first showing of the installation anywhere in the world outside the Japanese city of Hiroshima, marking Cai’s success in receiving the Seventh Hiroshima Art Prize awarded every three years to an artist who has made the greatest contribution to peace in the field of art.
Cai is very much an artist living in the “transculture” between New York and China, exhibiting worldwide, renowned for his gunpowder projects and drawings, such as for the opening of the Beijing Olympics (2008) – ‘gunpowder acts not only as a weapon but also as a medium of spiritual creativity and transformation’. His process of making is distinct…’After laying out large sheets of paper on the floor, Cai arranges gunpowder, fuses and cardboard stencils to create forms on the paper’s surface. The spontaneity of the resulting explosion, flames and fumes are controlled through the use of wooden boards, rocks and various other materials, which influence the impact of the explosions that create the final work.’ It is said that the landscape forms of ‘Unmanned Nature’ (2008) reference 14th Century Chinese ink and wash paintings, while the scale of the encircling installation parallels Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’.
“I wanted to discuss the role of people and their values; that is, what are people’s responsibilities in relation to nature? If there were no people, what would nature be?” – Cai Guo-Qiang
The tension between the violence of the gunpowder drawing process versus the sensitivity of the visualised landscapes act as a metaphor for many themes such as literally war and peace, and contemporary versus traditional Chinese ideologies, whilst portraying a contemporary take on the tradition of Chinese landscape painting and perspectives of rural China through a new visual story and narrative. It’s not often you enter an exhibition space to be so in awe and so immersed in what is another land…another culture…another point of view that to me felt so familiar, yet to manaXi so foreign. The water pool central to the space and in front of all aspects of the near 360 degree installation, acted as a mirror to further reflect and refract the gunpowder landscape…your understanding of the landscape…your experience of the landscape, referencing memory, a reinvention of (Chinese) heritage, a re-visioning of China’s past whilst appropriating the contemporary space of the gallery and interaction of the audiences, the latter of which seemed positive on the day. The window at the back of the gallery space, provided an additional portal to view another landscape, a slice of Whitworth Park, thus a “real” landscape (although in part constructed) of the UK set in contrast with Cai’s visionary landscape. I had a huge want to touch, to run my hand across the surface of the traditional Japanese washi paper (that one day I intend to learn how to make in Japan to feed my background and love of paper and book arts) and dip my fingers in the pool of the refracted understanding so I could feel even more part of the scenography that surrounded me. In the words of manaXi, the exhibition was beautifully conceived. It will resonate with me for a long time…as they did in 2008…
In conjunction with ‘Unmanned Nature’ (2008), The Whitworth commissioned a series of essays to further contextualise the exhibition, which you can view here – one is by Shanghai friend, writer and academic Francesca Tarocco called ‘Firing Paper’. Here are a couple of extracts from her essay…
‘Unmanned Nature – wuren de ziran 無人的 自然 in the Chinese logograms also used by the Japanese – means ‘nature without people’. The title references Cai’s preoccupation with exploring human agency and human responsibilities vis-à-vis extra-human cosmological forces. The disyllabic compound ziran ‘nature, the natural world’ also points at that which is spontaneous, ‘natural, at ease, free from affectation’. It is an old religious term contextual to practices of self- cultivation and meditation. It is that which exists ‘in freedom, of itself, automatically, without any attachment’. It is also the appearance of true reality as it is, or a thing, just as it is.’
‘Objects made of paper are still burned as gifts to the gods, the ghosts and the ancestors who inhabit the world beyond that of the living and the act of burning marks the transition to the nether world. Such practices rest on the belief that the spirits of the dead continue to dwell in the natural world and have the power to influence the fortune and fate of the living. The goal of ancestor worship is hence to ensure the continued well-being of the departed and their positive disposition towards the living.’
“Paper represents a more Chinese spirit…so it brings you some danger of blocking yourself into a Chinese setting… if what you create are trees and peonies, what belongs to you as an individual? And what is contemporary? When you get the pressure to a certain degree, you ignite it and turn it into a new form…If you hold the fuse in your hand when it ignites, your fingers will fly off. So it is with Chinese symbols of paper, panels, gunpowder, pine trees – you hold these elements in your hand and you ignite these elements.” – Cai Guo-Qiang
Whilst I was writing the blog post for this exhibition, I came across (on Twitter of all places) the auction sale of an Issey Miyake/Cai Guo-Qiang/Rainbow Serpent Dress in London on 23 June…an example of the dress is shown at the end of this blog post where I also managed to find a great video of the material being made…or destroyed…in 1998, which ever way you look at it. To wear a landscape? Now that’s another blog post…