N e w  C h i n e s e  A r t

Cai Guo-qiang
(b. Quanzhou City, China, 1957; resides New York)
Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows, 1998
Wooden boat, arrows, rope, flag, and electric fan
Commissioned by the Asia Society
Collection of the artist

The work is inspired by the story of a famous naval confrontation during the third century C.E. between contenders for the Chinese throne. A strategist of genius, General Zhu Geliang, was ordered by a jealous commander to produce 100,000 arrows in ten days for his army, a seemingly impossible task. However, Zhu devised a plan to trick the enemy into supplying the arrows. Since the opposing fleets were moored on opposite sides of the Yangzi River, Zhu sheathed his ships in straw bales and on a foggy day sailed out as if for battle. The enemy responded by shooting thousands of arrows into the straw bales. Once Zhu's armory was sufficiently replenished, his fleet returned to port.

The skeleton of the boat was excavated near the artist's hometown, Quanzhou, a famous port on the south coast of China. The arrows were specially made in China of bamboo tipped with bronze points and furnished with goose feathers.

For the artist, this work embodies a number of alternate meanings. The ship may represent China and the arrows foreign influences, but they might equally well represent self-inflicted pain. The work is thus about the perseverence and cunning of China's traditional culture, which can turn disadvantage into advantage. It alludes both to the contradictions within Chinese society and to the dangers and hypocrises inherent in global relationships.

Click on a photo for a larger view.

Wenda Gu
(b. Shanghai, 1955; resides New York)
United Nations Series: Temple of Heaven, 1998
Installation with screens of human hair, wooden chairs and tables, and video
Commissioned by the Asia Society
Collection of the artist

[Artist Interview]

Begun in 1993, Gu's United Nations series is projected for completion early next century, by which time it will include monuments to twenty-five countries. Temple of Heaven is the twelfth in the series. The human hair used to construct the "temple" was collected from more than 325 barbershops in Poland, Italy, The Netherlands, the United States of America, Israel, Russia, Sweden, England, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Korea, France, and China.

The openwork screens are formed by configuring strands or "ropes" of human hair into characters linked by a membrane of hair and fixed into the prescribed forms by adhesive. The "fake" scripts include Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, and the Roman alphabet. Gu was one of the first contemporary Chinese artists to begin faking scripts (an early example is his painting Contemplation of the World also included in Inside Out). By faking Chinese script, the artist plays a double conceptual game. The script is unreadable for both Chinese and non-Chinese; it is also unknowable whether the script is real or fake for both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences. The concept of an unidentified Chinese language could be interpreted by Chinese as the mythos of lost history; it also could be interpreted by non-Chinese as misunderstandings of exotic beauty. In general, the fake language symbolizes "misunderstandings," and yet pseudo-script helps us to reach infinity and eternity by imagining the universe which is out of reach of mankind's knowledge.

In this installation the artist has arranged the screens around a set of Ming-style tables and chairs. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the chairs. Video monitors set into the chairs show clouds scudding across the sky. A translation of the artist's text appearing in the video reads:

Ancient wisdom says that life is as fleeting as clouds . . .

you shall sit . . .
you shall listen . . .
you shall be silent . . .
you shall meditate . . .
you shall be free from gender, nationalities, races, politics, cultures, religions . . .
you shall fantasize while you ride on running clouds . . .
you shall have moments of transcending . . .

Read an interview with the artist in July in which he discussed the then work-in-progress.

These two pieces were commissioned especially for the exhibition.