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China's Pollution Crisis Inspires An Unsettling Art Exhibit

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When 16,000 dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai last year, it inspired a lot of questions about China's environmental conditions and a lot of disgust.

Now, those pigs have helped inspire an arresting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art.

The solo show, called The Ninth Wave, opened this month and features the work of a top, Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. His installations are grand, provocative and unsettling.

They're also popular, bringing in more visitors — over 20,000 so far — than any previous exhibit in the museum's brief history.

The signature work is a full-size fishing boat with a barnacle-encrusted hull that sits in the museum's cavernous atrium. Draped across the gunwales are animals from across the world: tigers, pandas, leopards, even an elephant. They all appear sick.

Some visitors immediately grasp the message.

"I feel Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to show that the survival of animals in the natural environment is like our own survival," says Rachel Wang, a Shanghai art teacher, who brought her 10-year-old son, Jerry, to see the exhibit. "When we run into difficult situations, we all become very helpless."

Another visitor, Chen Xiaomei, a retired manager at a big real estate development company here, is disturbed by what she sees.

"I felt in my heart that these animals are very pitiful," says Chen, 66, who wears pearls and a bright orange blouse. "They are about to die and they cling to Noah's Ark, trying to survive."

Inspired By A Russian Painting

Cai Guo-Qiang says the boat was inspired by a 19th-century Russian painting called The Ninth Wave, which depicts survivors of a shipwreck clinging to a drifting mast as waves crash in the background. Cai says when he was working on the boat, he also thought about last year's tide of dead pigs.

"My feeling was like everyone's," says Cai, who lives in New York and spoke by phone while visiting Beijing. "This was so unacceptable, so many dead pigs floating on the river. It's an outrageous thing."

The animals on the boat aren't real. Cai had a factory make them out of wool and Styrofoam.

He delivered the boat on a barge, which created a striking image as it sailed past Shanghai's gleaming financial district, home to some of the world's tallest buildings.

"Because Shanghai has the Huangpu River, I thought it called out for a boat," says Cai, 56. "In addition, the museum is beside the river, so if I use a boat like Noah's Ark to ship the animals, the feeling is very good. The message of the art work can reach the city and the masses."

The Power Station of Art opened in 2012 and is China's first state-run, contemporary art museum. It's housed inside a converted power plant, which has more than two-and-a-half football fields' worth of exhibition space and resembles London's Tate Modern.

The plant's former smokestack nearly rises to the height of the Washington Monument and has become something of a Shanghai landmark because after dark, it turns into a giant, light-up thermometer.

Huge Installations

Some artists would struggle to fill the museum's huge galleries, but Cai operates on a scale that seems a good fit. One installation, called Silent Ink, features a waterfall of black ink plunging from the ceiling and splattering into a 5,300 gallon lake that's been carved out of the museum floor.

The lake is ringed by mounds of crushed concrete and rebar and looks like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting built with industrial waste. A sign warns that the ink's smell may become overpowering for visitors.

Among Cai's many works here, one stands out as overtly political. It's called Head On, and it features dozens of wolves leaping across a huge room and crashing into a glass wall. The work debuted in Berlin in 2006 and speaks to the dangers of ideology and pack mentality. Some visitors, though, see parallels in China's chaotic political history.

"Some may think this is about the Berlin Wall, but I think it's about problems in China," says Li Hongyu, 40, as he carries his young son in his arms. "It's a reflection of the Cultural Revolution."

The Cultural Revolution was a political nightmare that ran from 1966 to 1976. Whipped up by Mao and his supporters, children informed on their parents and students beat their teachers. An estimated 1 million people died.

Despite the show's tough themes, Li Xu, the museum's deputy director of planning, says the local government didn't object to the content.

"When I accompanied officials to see the exhibition, a lot of them liked it because Chinese public media can no longer avoid discussing environmental problems," says Li. "Look at many newspapers, many magazines, they all discuss pollution and how to control it."

Not everyone immediately grasps the artist's message, though. Back by the fishing boat, a pair of students pose for photos with the animals.

"They're cute!" says Sherry Wan, who's on a return visit from her studies in Canada. "Don't you think so?"

When it's suggested she look a bit closer, Wan's smile fades and she acknowledges that — upon reflection — the animals don't look so good after all.

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