Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang prepared for this show by sending a battered fishing boat full of synthetic animals up the Huangpu River. The boat’s resemblance to Noah’s Ark was undermined by the creatures’ apparent feebleness and the work’s title, The Ninth Wave, which refers to Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting of shipwreck victims struggling to survive.
Beached in the museum’s atrium, Cai’s boat wasn’t an ark of salvation but a Titanic, emblematic of environmental disaster. And Cai himself is surely the James Cameron of the Chinese art world—his exhibitions are blockbusters: spectacular and populist.
Cai has long used gunpowder as an art material, both in fireworks displays and in his gunpowder paintings. For the show’s opening, he launched daytime fireworks from four barges anchored near the museum. A cloudy day provided a clean white canvas for the event, which culminated in crisscrossing trails of colored smoke, making a tartan across the sky.
Back inside, ersatz children sitting on a swing inside the museum’s smokestack reminded us that air pollution is bad. A lake of strong-smelling ink set into the floor of the museum resembled a pool of oil—also bad. But nuance is not Cai’s strength. Even when obvious, his creations are impactful, and the fireworks show was a triumphant piece of city-size graffiti.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 127.