Cai Guo-Qiang: Last Carnival and the Cuyahoga
The Trump EPA’s rollback of Obama-era rules protecting US waterways should have a special resonance in Cleveland, including in the art world here. Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the big fire on the Cuyahoga—an event which helped to inspire creation of the EPA—we know that humans and their industry can do profound damage to our waterways, and that regulation can turn the tide of pollution and restore water quality.
So this moment in the news gives occasion to revisit some of the projects that came about this summer in conjunction with the citywide celebration. For example, you’ve got about one more week to re-visit Cai Guo Qiang’s Cuyahoga River Lightning, which is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through next week.
Cai Guo Qiang uses gunpowder in his work, from drawings (which are what is on view at the Museum) to the monumental Sky Ladder, which featured in a documentary on the same name, which you can find on Netflix, and which the Museum screened in conjunction with the exhibition.
The river is re-oriented from it’s wandering vertical orientation (which is what we see on maps, where north is the same as up) to an enormous horizontal line. You can see on it the familiar details, where downtown, Ohio City, and Tremont are built. Much more important though are the interaction between the subject and medium, water and fire. Brittany Mariel Hudak wrote about the work’s creation for CAN here.
Gunpowder is used to fire bullets in battle, and also to bedazzle the sky with celebratory fireworks. And that idea juxtaposes well with our celebration in Cleveland, which was forward looking, and at its best, energizing. Nowhere did Cuyahoga 50 or Creative Fusion’s Waterways cohort indicate that the fight for water quality has been won, but they did mark victory in one battle, and pointed on multiple fronts to hope that we’ve seen a turning point.
The recent money-grubbing, short-sighted change in EPA rules makes clear that we can only hope.
Indeed, while there’s something inherently celebratory in Cai Guo Qiang’s Cuyahoga River Lightning, a wall-sized drawing made by igniting a crooked river-shaped trail of gunpowder, commissioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art to commemorate the fire on the Cuyahoga River, there is also a kind of rallying cry, an ignition, a shot-heard-round-the-world kind of effect.
If that piece is energizing, or even celebratory, the Trump administration’s mandate that the EPA roll back protection of US waterways (leaving a whole lot of rivers, marshes, and streams more vulnerable than they were) points to the power of another piece in the same exhibit. Next to Cuyahoga River Lightning, the museum presents Cai Guo-Qiang’s Last Carnival. It looks festive on first glance, drawn with colored gunpowder in shades of blue, yellow, and red. It is an image of a small pond, surrounded by wild animals. You can see a line representing the curvature of the earth. Above it, there are cherubs flying.
But look more closely. This image is apocalyptic. The cherubs cast a biblical pall over the curve of the earth, and allude to biblical images of the Baroque era. One of them is juxtaposed with a mushroom cloud. And there are far too many animals for that tiny little pond. And some of the animals are copulating. Some of them are copulating with animals of other species. This is the End Times, made to look like a party.
Cai Guo Qiang says, according to wall text, that the animals and cherubs represent humans, who “continue to mate, play, and party while the planet disintegrates and the water supply decreases.” He calls it a “deep tragedy.”
No argument here.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s Cuyahoga River Lightening, including Last Carnival and a third piece, Pine Forest and Wolf, will be on view through September 22 in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery, Gallery 010, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Free.