Sometimes conceptual art can be off-putting. Sometimes you need a guide, and sometimes even with help, you can find yourself scratching your head. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.
All art with staying power has depth of thought within it. Whether through visual symbols, references to society, connotations of power, breaks or alliances with art of the past, or just the individualistic vision of an artist whose decision making is played out in front of us on canvas, the ideas behind the work are the legs on which it stands.
Conceptual art is all about ideas, but sometimes the visual component is like rubbery legs. It just can’t hold the weight of the thought. In the best conceptual work, an idea is expressed through an intriguing, exciting object or occurrence, and there’s something great to look at.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through April 10th as part of “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection.” The sculpture, made in 1998, hasn’t been on view in years. It’s worth seeing.
Cai Guo-Qiang, who lives and works in New York, was born in China. Much of his art references and celebrates Chinese heritage through cutting-edge 21st century works. He’s known for performance art pieces painting the sky or the landscape with exploding gunpowder clouds of color.
Too out there for you? If you’ve seen a commercial for The Today Show in which members of the cast walk through the city greeting fans, you’ve already seen how Cai’s work has affected mainstream culture. At the end, the crew looks up at the sky and sees puffs of colored smoke make their logo in the sky. It’s a significant “borrow” from the artist’s 2002 piece, “Transient Rainbow” which was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for the opening of MoMA Queens.
“Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows,” is a less explosive work, but packs just as much of a punch. Cai reclaimed a boat that had been found long submerged in the mud near his birthplace in China. He liked its age and structure and stripped it down to the frame. Then, he pierced it with 3,000 feathered arrows and hung it from the ceiling.
The title and the work refer to a famous incident in Chinese military history. In the third century, general Zhuge Liang was tasked with replenishing his army’s 100,000 arrows in just 10 days’ time. He was no magician, but he was a great strategist. He waited for a foggy morning and then sent his ships, wrapped in bales of hay towards the enemy’s position on the opposite shore. They saw a legion of boats coming at them and launched all the arrows they had. Zhuge Liang’s men pulled the tethered boats back to their side of the river. Not only had they replenished their ammunition, they’d decimated the enemy’s.
Cai Guo-Qiang has stated that, in his work, he seeks both construction and destruction, mimicking the forces of nature. Here, he alludes to cultural influences, global relations, defending oneself and a way of life, strategies and adaptations, including those, he, himself has put into practice, traveling from one culture to another.
When seen floating above, not just pierced, but held aloft by thousands of feathers, “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows” is also a symbol of transcendence and hope.
Photos by Adel Gorgy
Detail of “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows” by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows,” part of “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection”