Have you seen the cars? Hanging from the ceiling? What did you think? Not much, says Carrie Miller…
Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, 2004.
Nine cars and sequenced multichannel light tubes, dimensions variable. Collection of Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, in honour of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art
Museum, 2006. Installation view at Shawinigan Space, National Gallery of Canada, 2006 Courtesy Cai Studio. Photograph: Kazuo Ono
One of the more imposing works in the entire show – dominating the expansive Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island – is Chinese-born, New York-based Cao Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004). The work is a series of cars apparently “suspended in an animated sequence of explosion”, indicated by the pulsating rods of light which extend out of the vehicles.
According to the guide, these rods pierce the cars “like wings and penetrate them like blades”, enabling the viewer to witness the signification of a “co-existing violence and beauty”. That certainly sounds spectacular. And while superficially appealing and distracting, in the way shiny, flashing things generally are these days, I felt a nagging sense of being underwhelmed. Those piercing rods of pulsing lights looked like over-sized sparklers at the entrance of a country carnival. In fact, I was more interpreted in getting a picture of myself with the work rather than experiencing it directly – like getting a shot of yourself standing next to the Big Merino.
Interestingly enough, the work left me with the same feeling that you might get stuck in traffic on Sydney’s Parramatta Rd where car yards stretch west to the end of the world and all that breaks up the monotony are, well, the odd elevated car with superficially appealing and distracting flashing bits.
In a Biennale that sometimes fails to cash out its promise of being conceptually fresh and sophisticated, monumental works such as Guo-Qiang’s really need to claim the space of the spectacle expected of international art shows when light on content. For me, cars are much more beautiful and violent just going about their ordinary business.