Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim

detail of "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004)

"Inopportune: Stage One" (2004)

Since Mr. Cai emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s, his work has often been seen as pure and above the market. It is lauded for its emphasis on collective activity and its expansion of the principles of appropriation, and in fact its populist thrust and often ephemeral nature can make it a welcome antidote to the world of saleable art objects, commercial galleries and auctions. But Mr. Cai’s work is also quite expensive to realize. And his prominence is the product of a system that rivals the market in size and power: that of biennial exhibitions, public commissions and international organizations. Both systems, commercial and institutional, are driven by spectacle, whether the spectacle of high prices or the spectacle of large scale or feats of installation.

"Reflection - A Gift From Iwaki"
Take for example the rare moment of stasis at the show’s conclusion: a large, salt-bitten hull of a Japanese fishing boat, resurrected from the sea and now marooned on a bed of shattered white porcelain statues. Mr. Cai has shown it twice before, and each time it is assembled and disassembled by the crew of Japanese workers and fishermen who originally recovered it. This is what might be called extreme appropriation art; the hull is hauntingly beautiful, not primarily as art but as an archaeological specimen and feat of engineering, both in its construction and its placement in a museum.

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