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Cai-Wire Act: The Guggenheim and Its Engineers Pull Off Their Stunt UPDATED

Believe me, even though I’m pretty intrepid, I was a little worried walking into the Guggenheim’s Cai Guo-Qiang press preview this morning. Hadn’t I previously written about Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Fallingwater, with the notoriously misconstructed cantilever that would have fallen into the water, had it not been recently shored up? Had he designed the aging Guggenheim’s rotunda to withstand the force of six real cars (engines removed), suspended from the ceiling?
There are nine cars in all: Two are at the bottom of the rotunda—the starting point of a levitating backwards somersault. And the procession ends at the museum’s uppermost ramp:
Luckily at today’s press preview I ran into designer/carpenter Pablo Maine (below), who was involved in the installation of the Guggenheim’s “exhibition copy” of “Inopportune: Stage One” (originally commissioned by MASS MoCA and now owned by the Seattle Art Museum).
He improved my level of confidence, but I was a little queasy when I learned that despite the engineers’ assurances, the cars were suspended just a couple of feet off the ground at first, and then mounted in their proper places one by one…just in case.

Tom Krens, in remarks to the press today, was in a generous mood, not only crediting MASS MoCA’s 2004 exhibition as the progenitor of this show, but also tipping his hat to the Guggenheim Foundation’s previous director, Tom Messer, for the Joseph Beuys show that Krens said he regarded as a prototype for the current retrospective—cementing an important artist’s reputation.

Here’s a close-up of the wires that hold the cars (and our fates) in the balance:
Maybe we should add this little white car to the exhibition.

There’s another performative aspect to the show, but only for its first week or so: Craftsmen are still putting the finishing touches on the clay figures in Cai’s epic “New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard”:
Some of the figures are going to be left as bare armatures, uncovered by clay, even though photos depicting the finished sculptures are taped on them. I didn’t (but should have) asked if this was the original plan or a pragmatic last-minute decision, as time ran out:
The “Rent” piece struck me as Kara Walker-like: an emotionally and politically charged piece, in a traditional medium, depicting the oppressors…
…and the oppressed:
But Cai’s work has a more ambiguous vibe, because of its association with the peasants-vs.-landlords social realism under Mao’s Communist regime. It was appropriated by Cai, for the 1999 Venice Biennale, from a 1965 sculptural ensemble, “Rent Collection Courtyard,” that had been created by members of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. (They sued for plagiarism but lost.) The New York version is expected to physically disintegrate during the course of the show.

Some people see all the airborn tigers and wolves as superficial gimmicks. I found the displays both frightening and exhilarating. At the press preview, Cai evoked the temporal dimension of the show by likening the viewer’s experience to the unrolling of a Chinese scroll. Never have the Guggenheim ramps and rotunda been put to such compelling use.
I’ve now seen all three versions of Cai’s car stunt, and I believe that the Guggenheim—because of its good architectural fortune, its risk-taking director and, we hope, its savvy engineers and installers—got the best highwire act of all.

UPDATE: Gregory Scheckler blogs (with photos) about helping to fabricate at MASS MoCA some of the works now in the Guggenheim’s show.

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