online: 28 april 2003

17 april 2003 the unimpeded mind

9:12 (written next day from brief notes and then accidentally deleted - this is a second attempt)

He had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously - finally frantically - and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth.*

Yesterday I witnessed a large scale video projection of new kinds of fireworks by Cai Guo-Qiang**

Arriving at a moment when every part of a riverside city centre (was it Shanghai?) was sprouting streams and bubbles of exploding light I felt overwhelmed by the scale and the continuousness of the spectacle - and distracted by recurrent thoughts of 'how is it done' and 'what did it cost?'...

...And I was reminded that firework displays are one of the 'sports of kings' - capable of pleasing and astonishing subject people in celebration of the joys of being ruled... Politics, or imposed rule, made beautiful?...

...and I was reminded of the precision bombing of Baghdad being shown as visual spectacle on global television.

Usually I do not enjoy fireworks - I think because of the loudness of explosions (half-intended to frighten) and because of the predictability of a series of stars and rockets, each slightly more spectacular than the last... but therefore dull. But Cai Guo-Qiang's fireworks seem different - more like fountains than rockets and more continuous and slower and more connected with the earth and with the architecture.

I became more interested when we were shown the modest beginnings as the artist ignites ropes of explosive lights that creep and jump between poles and other objects on the ground - and as he runs and hops backwards to avoid getting burnt. I could see that his kind of fireworks are less explosive than most - they resemble fountains and vases of flowers more than rockets and guns.

But how is it that modern art, which began as visual exploration and experiment, has evolved into large scale spectacle and celebration of 'things as they are'? How has radical intention (of changing the way we perceive) become the more conservative intention (of supporting and magnifying the status quo)?

And how is it that modern artists, formerly existing without much money or resources or power, can now acquire the influence and the organisation and finances to animate a whole city or the visible sky?

Cai Guo-Qiang isn't the only artist to work in this way (at the scale of architecture, civil engineering, or urban planning). Since the landscape art experiments of Christo and others, since painting left the framed canvas, and since sculpture ceased to portray only the human figure, visual art has become physically free to include 'everything' as medium and as subject for art. But only now is it becoming evident how very far this can go and, indeed, how very greatly this extends the popularity and the influence of 'art'... No longer is art exclusive and socially hidden - it is gradually becoming an inclusive part of life - or at least of entertainment.

But what of the small scale, the inexpensive... and the extensiveness in mind of a poetic word or a thought, such as this?... These too have become accessible from any part of the earth, thanks to the internet.

So, are all the arts now coming to be within the grasp and consciousness of everyone? And does this mean that at last each person can live and can act with the sensitivity and range of the unimpeded mind? - I think the answer is YES, if artists, curators and media presenters, moguls, tycoons all other centralists (think of Mr Stahr, The Last Tycoon of Scott Fitzgerald's novel*) have the courage, the education, and the self-effacement to get out of the way. That I think is the direction not only in art now but in everything - towards the despecialisation of people and the enlargement of life through a more flexible technoculture...

...and to write even such little words as these, in this public place or any other, is all it takes to be and live at the full extent of mind!

*Scott Fitzgerald's answer to the question of how had Mr Stahr got to be a supreme maker of motion pictures - while still attempting an old-fashioned paternalistc democracy. (From F Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex 1968, page 25.)

**Cai Guo-Qiang - as part of the exhibition of his work at S.M.A.K. Gallery, Gent, Belgium, April 2003.

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© 2003 john chris jones

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