Cai and Tan (and Chen and Murakami, too)
Speaking of art spectaculars (see below), we have Cai Guo-Qiang's show "I Want to Believe," which fills the main spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Cai likes to blow things up, which can look pretty flamboyant in person or at the Guggenheim, in all manner of videos documenting his explosive predilections. In our world of terrorism and war, this has a disturbing undercurrent, but that's not all Cai does. He also likes feathery arrows: hundreds of them sticking out of model tigers and a suspended boat. And he likes wolves, ferocious ones in a swirling pack that lifts off the ground and arches up Frank Lloyd Wright's circular Guggenheim ramp.
It might look like more big, cartoonish Asian art, the kind that, as with some highbrows' reaction to Olafur Eliasson, seems primary-colored vulgar to refined sensibilities. Takashi Murakami, with his enormous Hello Kitty! cartoon art, can provoke similar reactions. I haven't gotten to Murakami's current Brooklyn Museum retrospective, but I did see a show he curated recently at the Japan Society, and it was downright disturbing, right beneath the shiny kiddie surface. Good disturbing, though; Murakami gets to me on a deeper level than does Cai, at least so far.
But there is something endearing aobut the modern Chinese penchant for the over the top. I think of the composer Tan Dun, whose rather pallid "The First Emperor" has been recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera. Tan started out a modernist, and he retains some of that hard-to-take modernist dissonance, seemingly for dissonance's sake. But his other side is exuberantly populist, and for me is far preferable. His score for the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," with Yo-Yo Ma, was gorgeous. And his two big, noisy celebration symphonies, one for the turn of the millennium and the other for the reabsorption of Hong Kong into the Motherland, sounded completely over the top in their mixing-up of musical idioms. I loved them; they were right up Peter Gelb's alley.
Some of the stage work of the director Chen Shi-Zheng, a friend of Tan's, fits into this category, too, as in his circus-terpsichoric-rock opera "Monkey: Journey to the West," which has stirred up the Spoleto U.S.A. Festival in Charleston of late. It would probably be part of this summer's rather sparse Lincoln Center Festival were not the New York State Theater being closed to begin its renovation for the Gerard Mortier era at the New York City Opera.
For better or worse, when you think about Cai and Tan and Chen, China is on the move, and Chinese artsts are on the move, too.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.