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"Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows" (1998)

The Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of the work of the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is nothing if not action packed, writes Roberta Smith. The galleries are so rife with the sound of explosions and the sight of suspended objects and wildlife (stuffed) that it might almost be a movie set for some new martial-arts spy thriller. Perhaps “The Air-Bourne Aesthetic: Writhing Tigers, Hurtling Wolves.”

Organized by Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Alexandra Munroe, the museum’s senior curator of Asian art, this exhibition nearly fills the museum and introduces a conceptually inclined impresario best known for works using gunpowder. Regularly hailed as a global artist and chosen to oversee the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Mr. Cai has parlayed a United Nations’ worth of cultural sources and artistic strategies into crowd-pleasing, easily deciphered if not terribly original art.

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Detail of "The Age of Not Believing in God" (1999)

As shown here his work breaks down into three very different categories — installation art, gunpowder land art pieces (documented on video) and enormous gunpowder drawings — with markedly varied success. The installation pieces are the most spectacular, albeit the emptiest and most generic. They speak the familiar Esperanto of installation art that, subject to various cultural adjustments, has thrived at international biennials. Their hollowness makes a certain sense, given that Mr. Cai studied stage design.

The constants are suspended motion, sudden change, violence and, at times, transformation. Even the show’s title, “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe,” suggests yearning for a different state, and whether this desire concerns art, religion, magic or U.F.O.’s is itself left up in the air

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"Inopportune: Stage One" (2004)

The displays lead off with seven white sedans suspended as if they were back-flipping upward into the museum’s seven-story-high rotunda while spewing gorgeous sprays of neon sparks — an ambiguous comment on car bombings or Nascar racing.

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Detail of "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004)

On the first ramp nine imitation (if quite real-looking) stuffed tigers pincushioned with scores of arrows writhe in the air in furious death throes, a violent clash between nature and man that conjures royal hunts, extinct species and excessive force.

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Gianna Bambi of Florence, Italy, takes a boat ride.

“An Arbitrary History: River,” a considerably less trompe l’oeil installation work, involves attractively rough-hewn pieces, including a woven-basket canal filled with water and dried animal-hide rafts for paddling in it. But the ensemble effect is, again, familiar; it suggests a 1980s Neo-Expressionist painting in three dimensions.

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Installation view of "Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf - The Ark of Genghis Khan" (1996)

Since Mr. Cai emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s, his work has often been seen as pure and above the market. It is lauded for its emphasis on collective activity and its expansion of the principles of appropriation, and in fact its populist thrust and often ephemeral nature can make it a welcome antidote to the world of saleable art objects, commercial galleries and auctions. But Mr. Cai’s work is also quite expensive to realize. And his prominence is the product of a system that rivals the market in size and power: that of biennial exhibitions, public commissions and international organizations. Both systems, commercial and institutional, are driven by spectacle, whether the spectacle of high prices or the spectacle of large scale or feats of installation.

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"Reflection - A Gift From Iwaki"

Take for example the rare moment of stasis at the show’s conclusion: a large, salt-bitten hull of a Japanese fishing boat, resurrected from the sea and now marooned on a bed of shattered white porcelain statues. Mr. Cai has shown it twice before, and each time it is assembled and disassembled by the crew of Japanese workers and fishermen who originally recovered it. This is what might be called extreme appropriation art; the hull is hauntingly beautiful, not primarily as art but as an archaeological specimen and feat of engineering, both in its construction and its placement in a museum.

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"Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9" (1991)

Mr. Cai’s work is most convincing when gunpowder is involved, particularly with the enormous gunpowder drawings and screens, whose fuzzed and charred images result from exploding gunpowder and fuses on paper.

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Videos show Mr. Cai making these works aided by assistants who spring forward to extinguish the flames after the explosions. The motifs they save can be feathery depictions of pine needles and branches that evoke traditional Chinese and Japanese brush painting — although when Mr. Cai adds an eagle to this motif, his installation-art hokiness returns. Other images include mountainous or lunar landscapes, Minimalist pyramids and, most impressively, a giant mandala with a Buddha-like silhouette at its center titled “Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials, No. 9,” from 1991. The subtitles, shared with land-art gunpowder pieces for which the drawings are often studies, intimate an audience beyond not only the art world, but also the planet.

Mr. Cai always thinks big. But here, when he is more hands-on, the impresario becomes an artist.

(source www.nytimes.com - Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)