Review by Tara Tan
Armed with a hungry camaraderie, 99 life-sized wolves take a fiery leap of faith and find themselves frozen in a breathtaking arc across a vast expanse of dark space. Their bold surge meets an unfortunate demise in the form of a glass wall: slamming into the thin pane head on, the mighty arc crumbles; the wolves fall, shocked and aghast. Yet they pick themselves up again and limp to rejoin the tail end of the herd, forming an endless cycle of brutality and folly.
This dramatic scene forms the premise of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Head On (2006), which is currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore.
Created for the artist’s solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Head On confronts the deep-rooted tensions that remain between East and West Germany, despite the removal of the Berlin Wall two decades ago. The work was inspired by Guo-Qiang’s first visit to Berlin in 2005, where he visited war memorials, saw the remains of the Berlin Wall, and was struck by the lingering presence of tragedy and history.
The wolves fall prey to this violent and absurd, yet terrifyingly compelling, spiral that is imbued with a heavy air of pathos, pity and unspeakable lunacy. Head On intrinsically comments on the foolishness of collective mentality that manages somehow to sweep us along such that we follow, blindly, doggedly and faithfully, brusquely ignoring consequence.
On the facing wall, a large, muted painting with an incredible presence, entitled Vortex (2006), draws you in. Guo-Qiang, known for working with explosives in his artworks, set off hundreds of wolf-shapes that he stenciled using gunpowder such that they formed a mesmerising, cruel and ruthlessly repetitive whorl. What was left behind was an insurmountable sense of tragedy, loss and helplessness.
The live piece, which was staged at the opening of the exhibition in the Guggenheim, was documented in a video which was screened alongside the painting. Each time the work unfolded and you ‘witnessed’ the sharp eruptions that pounded out the painting over and over again - a sense of the relentless, gleeful insurmountability heightened.
This technique of ‘painting with gunpowder’ dominates Guo-Qiang’s work, as seen in Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe, his mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008. The prominent Chinese artist, who oversaw the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, weaves grand, snaking explosions through natural and urban landscapes. There could be those speeding next to a Japanese commuter bullet train, for instance, or ones that dance amid towering construction cranes in Vienna.
The careening, brave yet foolhardy wolves in the dark cavernous belly of the National Museum surge in a majestic trajectory, which is at once that, yet forlorn and terrified. Head On is a consuming work that lingers on the terror of an unstoppable velocity carried on the backs of a mass collective swept up in blind faith.