Debating Globalization And The Ninth Wave

(Rosemary’s Note: This is the last in a series of posts about Debating Globalization, a class taught by Framing Fellow Sean Metzger at Fudan University as part of a University of California-Fudan exchange during the fall semester. You can find several other posts about the class on our blog.)

By Sean Metzger and students

Debating Globalization extended the classroom into the city of Shanghai in order to prepare students to engage “the field” in pursuit of their own research. We looked at several phenomena that might be understood to frame the global from a particular Chinese perspective.

One such event was a visit to the Power Station of Art where students encountered artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation entitled The Ninth Wave. Cai is perhaps best known to audiences for his display of fireworks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Those fortunate to have seen his retrospective “I Want to Believe” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (also in 2008) will remember the cars tumbling into the air of the atrium above visitors’ heads. Although that piece “Inopportune: Stage One” was not reconstructed for China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, many other selections did reappear at the Power Station of Art including video documentation of his explosion events and the dramatic installation “Head On.”

These reprisals accompanied several new works including “The Bund Without Us,” “Silent Ink,” and “Air of Heaven.” What follows are some of the students’ reactions to these works.

Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave, Power Station of Art, Shanghai — Kim Gipouloux

The name of the exhibition – The Ninth Wave refers to the title of a painting by Russian artist Ivan Aivazousky made in 1850. This particular painting depicts a group of men who have miraculously survived a shipwreck — they are desperately clinging onto the ships debris as to their lives. Their expressions reveal a sentiment of helplessness as they are confronted by the roaring waves of the never ending sea in front of them. The expression the “ninth wave” is drawn from a nautical tradition which implies that waves grow larger and larger in a series up to the largest – the ninth wave. Cai Guo-Qiang may be indicating that man has reached an extremely high point in his self-destruction, one which may be fatal for human nature and its surroundings.

The Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has drawn many parallels from this painting to his other pieces in the show. Although most pieces of The Ninth Wave could easily be related to globalization, the one which seemed the most evidently evoking issues linked to globalization was The Ninth Wave installation. It is in fact the first piece one notices when entering the vast museum. The installation is overwhelming due to its size and a feeling of anxiety emanates from it. The piece is composed of an old medium sized fishing boat from the artist’s hometown, Quanzhou, filled with replicas of wild animals as well as an extremely worn out white flag.

The animals hold breathless expressions, their limbs dangling off the edge of the boat, they seem exhausted and seasick. The deliberate choice of representing animals instead of humans inevitably brings us to a Judeo-Christian reference — the Old Testament, more accurately the Genesis flood narrative. In the story, God has decided to flood earth yet he saves Noah and his family whose task is to rescue a couple from each animal species.

It is intriguing to notice that Cai found inspiration in Western culture for this piece. This may remind us that a western religion as old as Christianity has now become an inherent component of Chinese culture. We could argue that Judaism or Christianity has now become “global” seeing as the Chinese audience completely understands the reference here.

Here however, the spectator is confronted by a completely different scenario than the one of the Bible. The flood is not triggered by God’s anger, but by humans. Possibly humans who had overambitious goals, humans who had the pretension to be semi-gods. In this perspective, the installation may be seen as an allegory of the tragic consequences of global warming caused by man. Only a few animals have survived and they are on the verge of dying.

The artist chose a relatively old fashioned fishing boat from Quanzhou, historically known as one of the largest seaports in China during the Song and Yuan Dynasty. Nowadays the city is known for its massive textile production. One could interpret the choice of using this kind of boat in reference to the recent disintegration of small local businesses in China. Independent fishing businesses are quickly disappearing due to the emergence of large corporations invading the market. In recent years  over-fishing has been devastating the oceans deep seabeds causing disequilibrium in the ecosystem in a global manner. The extinction of numerous animals species has been taking place, and the number of endangered animals keeps growing, one of them being the giant panda which is represented in this same boat created by the artist.

The artist is calling the population to a halt, inexorably making them look at what is happening in their country and more generally to their world. This issue is highly relevant as China’s increasing pollution rate affects the rest of the world.

As for the ship’s white flag, it may be seen as a symbol of defeat in front of what is ahead of these animals. It was just over a year ago when more than 16-thousand dead pigs were illegally thrown into the Huangpu River, raising serious concerns about food safety and public health issues in China.

This particular piece set sail on the Bund July 17th, the traveling installation was exposed to every passer-by on the wharf of the Bund. Videos show the different reactions from spectators, most reveal a slight emotion of terror at the sight of theses animals clinging onto life. Cai Guo-Qiang ingenuously turned one of the world’s financial centers into his own exhibiting space. He consequently manages to establish a dialogue with his audience — the Shanghainese, tourists, as well as business-people working by the Bund. This confrontation inevitably makes each spectator contemplate issues related to the extinction of wild animals, thus, to problems related to global warming and pollution.

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Outside Shanghai’s Power Station of Art. Photo by David Almeida. (Flick Creative Commons.)

Cai Guo-Qiang is unquestionably a “global” artist raising “global” issues. He is of Chinese descent, born and raised in China, he now lives in New York and works in major cities across the globe. His work revolves around significant topics of our contemporary society while often using ancient Chinese mediums of creation (e.g. gunpowder, porcelain, fireworks) therefore mingling the contemporary world with the old.

This exhibition as a whole was heavily impregnated with issues linked to globalization. It was interesting to notice that the financial support for this exhibition came from various international firms from different countries, such as: INFINITI (Luxury vehicle division of Japanese automaker Nissan), Deutsche Bank, Shiseido (China), Moleskine (Italy) and more.

As for the location – the former Nanshi Power Station, it seemed to resonate the artist’s words – is it possible to turn the situation around? The Chinese government recycled this old electric power station into a beautiful museum with industrial architecture echoing contemporary issues raised by artists such as Cai Guo-Qiang.

Side Effects of Industrialization: “Silent Ink” — Stephanie Thai

Cai Guo-Qiang’s striking piece, “Silent Ink,” resonated with me the most because of its implications of environmentalism, industrialization, and vulnerability. The seemingly “natural” environment of rolling hills, lake, and waterfall is actually made up of rubble (deconstructed cement blocks and wire) and pungent-smelling ink, which permeates throughout the entire exhibit.

There is a sort of serenity/sadness that I feel from this piece — serenity because of the “natural” shapes the objects are formed in, but sadness because of the realization that through the continued practice of industrialization and pollution, this is what the world will look like, man-made materials that will soon replace natural environments.

From my understanding, globalization is an aspiration that every country is encouraged to live up to, and it is something that all countries can experience simultaneously. This piece illustrates the usage of industries — the entry point of engaging in the global.

Becoming more global can mean being more open with other countries, communicating frequently and exchanging ideas — from an economic standpoint, this is usually dealt through imports/exports and means of production. Not to say that he is protesting against processes of globalization per se, but I believe that Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to bring light to some of the consequences of needing to industrialize and modernize quickly.

Because environmentalism has been pushed back as being less of a priority in China’s attempt of becoming an emerging country, Cai is attempting to revalidate its importance by showcasing the potential side effects on living areas. To become a “successful” (although this term is very vague) globalized country, China needs to re-evaluate their steps and focus on building a healthy foundation before diving into a corporate empire.

Cai Guoqiang’s “9th Wave” — Kyle Dea

My first reaction to the Gate to Heaven? was one of shock which kind of made me begin to chuckle. I walked in and saw three babies swinging quite quickly and at first thought they were real. I saw the spiral ramp and thought, “I have to walk up all that to view this exhibit!”I walked up it only to discover that it is closed around two stories. Once back at the bottom, I looked up to the ceiling and looked at it for at least a minute.

The void up there made me think of outer space or some sort of netherworld. I then started to think of the potential symbolism of the piece. The ceiling did not look as if it was falling, but it did look somewhat inevitable. As if these babies will have to deal with this unknown. And, the fear always accompanies the unknown. However, the kids are having fun swinging and not worried.

Concerning globalization, I think that all parents worry about the future security of their children. It may not be a completely new idea directly resulting from globalization, but I believe it has somehow become more globalized. For example, the student leader involved in the occupy movement in Hong Kong made a comment about not wanting his children to deal with democracy issues. To understand the sort of globalized aspect of this worry for children, a contrast to earlier times could be useful.

I cannot really imagine four centuries ago that a Chinese parent worried about the same global issues such as pollution, democracy, income inequality, or poor labor conditions. They had no global scenario to compare with. Another point that may clear this up is how global warming and limited natural resources do not directly affect us, but our future generations. On a more local American level, discussions and cartoons exist that show our national debt as something our children will have to deal with.

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