Met Museum: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Black Cloud

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Cai Guo-Qiang's Clear Sky Black Cloud appearing at noon yesterday above the rooftop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Click picture to see it bigger. The cloud --almost gone at this point -- is above the sheet of glass.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s Clear Sky Black Cloud appearing at noon yesterday above the rooftop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Click picture to see it bigger. The cloud –almost gone at this point — is above the sheet of glass.

I almost missed it. The pop of the gunpowder explosion was sharp and had that recognizable gunshot sound, and while the Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop guard had told me where to look, still I almost missed the small poof of black smoke that the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang propelled into the atmosphere at noon. The piece is called Clear Sky Black Cloud and we had cloudy skies and wind, and the wind was a factor. When I found the black cloud (above the sheet of glass–very faint) it had all but dispersed itself to wherever gunpowder smoke particles go into the atmosphere.

Cai’s piece, along three other decidedly less ephemeral sculptures on the rooftop, made for a great essay on contemporary issues like time, the nature of mediated experience, and the monumentality of life’s big and small events.

The Black Cloud piece was the event du jour but for my money, works like Transparent Monument, a sheet of what looks like tempered glass, footed by a plinth on which several dead birds lie (convincing replicas–not real dead birds) spoke of the World Trade Center 911 disaster as well as eco-disasters looming as we struggle to and are continuously unable to build a world in which nature is not raped and pillaged in the name of progress.


Detail from Cai’s Nontransparent Monument. I believe this shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River

Cai told this story again in his limestone piece, Nontransparent Monument, a carved narrative relief that seems to embrace the history of the 20th Century, from people to politics and social phenomena. It’s got a great cartoon-roughness that is perfect for the times and the whole is woven together by rivers of water and sky, juxtaposed with rivers of people and buildings. We read it as you would a painting, close up, far away, left to right, diagonally, and every which way. The cosmos is in the piece and it’s funny, sad, dark, and ultimately hopeful.


Cai’s Nontransparent Monument, carved limestone.

This artist is so atuned to the culture he’s absorbed it from inside out. He’s dishing it back in big metaphorical pieces that are monuments but not elegies; love songs and not dirges. Pointing forward at the same time that they look back, these works have energy that’s often missing from contemporary works that try to comment on contemporary issues.

Their combination of forward-backward momentum makes them like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumb trail leading the way out of the forest. Playful, childlike and imbued with a wide-eyed view of the world, these works are smarter than smart. And their placement on the roof is just great, juxtaposing their thoughts about monumentality with the backdrop of monumental sky and city.

This was my first trip to the Met’s rooftop sculpture garden. I immediately fell in love with the space, which is not big really, but which gives you vast horizons, gorgeous green hedges to frame your shots of the sky, and truly great views of the Manhattan skyline. I took a bunch of pictures (even caught a hawk circling on the wind) and have them on my flickr set And for more on Cai, see Libby’s post on his Mass MoCA installation last summer.

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