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November 2015

Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One”

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). Current display at Seattle Art Museum

Last Friday, when I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One (2004) which is on display in the Seattle Art Museum. Guo-Qiang first created this installation in 2004 for the Mass MoCA (it also was displayed at the Guggenheim in 2008). Nine Ford Taurus cars are laid out in a sequence, but the overall effect is to give the suggestion of one car that is flipping through the air (although time is standing still, so the viewer sees “freeze frame” shots of the car suspended). The first and the ninth car are placed on the ground, suggesting the beginning and end of motion, as well as the beginning and ending of an event: the exploding of a car bomb.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Inopportune: Stage One" (2004). View of 2004 installation at MASS MoCA

Cai Guo-Qiang, “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004). View of 2004 installation at Building 5 of MASS MoCA

Lights emanate from most of the cars, but the colors change as the cars flip through the air. The first few cars have lights from all different colors, which have been compared to fireworks.1 (As a Chinese artist, perhaps Guo-Qiang is connecting to his heritage by alluding to Chinese fireworks.) However, the last few cars (numbers seven and eight in the sequence) emanate different colors: blue, indigo, and purple. (I actually prefer the Mass MoCA installation setup for this reason, because you can best see how the colors of the lights change.) These colors suggest that the impact and heat of the bomb are dying out, as the explosion ends.

Guo-Qiang is a New Yorker, and he was deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. Inopportune: Stage One is a reference to 9-11 and also a reference to the world as it exists today (as the result of the events of 9-11).2 So, when I heard about the attacks in Paris, I couldn’t help but think of how this installation embodies the turmoil and upset that is still taking place because of terrorism. I also feel like this installation also can embody an element of hope and perspective too, since the cars and lights are suspended and presented in a beautiful and lyrical way:

“We live in a world full of terror, of discussion and fear of terror. However, if you present only that, you are not providing a perspective. What if it is also something that is very beautiful and dreamlike? Does that reflect something? I always come back to this point: that art ought not to just restate what we know and how we live, it must provide a perspective, a distance.”3 – Cai Guo-Qiang

Ironically, I received notification just this afternoon that Inopportune: Stage One is going to be taken down from its permanent installation in the Brotman Forum at the Seattle Art Museum, starting soon after the beginning of the new year (January 2016). I’m torn about this decision, especially since I feel like the sentiment behind this installation, both in referencing terror and spreading beauty, is more poignant and needed than ever.

This evening, though, I wondered if maybe the visuals of this installation need to be altered to fit with today’s situation. I heard a segment on the radio saying that in years to come, we may look back and say that “The War on Terrorism 1″ began in 2001 with an American initiative, and that “The War on Terrorism 2″ began right now, in 2015, with the European response. Sadly, time will tell if this is the case. But this makes me wonder if a new installation of Inopportune would be appropriate, with perhaps Renault or Citroën cars suspended in the air.

1 Seattle Art Museum, “Inopportune: Stage One.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www1.seattleartmuseum.org/eMuseum/code/emuseum.asp?style=single&currentrecord=1&page=search&profile=objects&searchdesc=Number%20is%202006.1&searchstring=Number/,/is/,/2006.1/,/0/,/0

2 Ibid.

3 Guggenheim Museum, “Cai Guo-Qiang, I Want to Believe.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=727&id=93

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Blue-Skinned Demons, Monsters, and Gods

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Detail of Blue demon and snakes with another demon, Tomb of the Blue Demons, Necropolis of Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. 5th century BC, Etruscan

Last week my students and I were discussing the blue demons that are found in some Etruscan tombs. We were exploring two different reasons which might explain why these demons have blue skin. One theory is that the blue skin is a depiction of rotting human flesh: these demons are embodiments of death.1 A different, yet also related theory, is that the blue color relates to the skin discoloration which occurs when someone is bit by a deadly, poisonous snake, specifically an adder.2

During this discussion, two different students mentioned that the blue skin reminded them of demons and religious figures found in other cultures. I never thought too deeply about how blue skin appears in different cultures across the world, and I thought I’d make a little compilation of a few noteworthy examples.

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Blue Oni, detail from a hanging scroll depicting the Sessen Doji story. Ink on silk, hanging scroll, about 1770s

Soga Shôhaku, (1730-1781), Sessen Doji (Sessendoujizu) scene with a blue oni, detail from a hanging scroll. Ink on silk, about 1770s, Keishouji Temple.

The oni is an ogre or troll, and it is a common figure in Japanese folklore. They have distinctive long horns, which makes them appear to be a combination of both beasts and humans. Onis most commonly appear with blue, red or green skin, and they are often clad in tiger skin. One particular representation of the oni that I like is from the 18th century (shown above), in a painting by Soga Shôhaku. Here, an oni is used to depict a demon from the Sessen Doji tale.

In thinking about the various colors which can be used for the oni’s skin, I wonder if color is supposed to suggest that the figure is inhuman. From what I can tell, the color of the skin doesn’t matter (since red, blue, and green are all used), but all of the colors are very different from how human skin actually appears. To me, the blue skin of the no suggests that the figure is otherworldly, which by extension makes the figure seem more threatening to me. The creators of the film Avatar used blue skin for the same reason; they played with modern associations regarding skin color and race to make sure that moviegoers could perceive these figures not only as aliens, but as Others.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, page from an illustrated Dashavatara series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in.

In some cases, though, the color blue has much more significance than to draw a visual distinction of difference between a the figure-in-question and a human audience. Such is the case with Hindu art, in which more than one blue-skinned figure appears. Perhaps the most common figure who can appear with blue skin is Vishnu (who can also appear with blue skin as Krishna, considered by many to be an avatar of Vishnu). Some claim that the blue skin in this religious context has positive connotations, suggesting the sky and the limitlessness of the sky and universe. Blue also references life and the forces of life, since bodies of water can appear blue. Finally, others assert that the color blue in Hinduism is used to describe manliness, bravery, a stable mind and a depth of character. How curious that the color blue can suggest a depth of character in Hinduism, whereas the blue color in Japanese folklore seems to suggest an inhuman creature (which perhaps implies a lack of character or positive human feeling, right?)!

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I know of a few other instances where blue-skinned figures appear, too. In Balinese culture the traditional gods can appear with blue skin. A traditional Balinese monster, the oguh-oguh, also can appear with blue skin (although various colors are used to depict the oguh-oguh, so the color doesn’t seem to be a qualifying feature).

Do you know of other cultural instances in which blue-skinned figures occur in art? If you know of other cultural and/or symbolic associations with blue skin too, please share!

1 How Art Made the World: To Death and Back, directed by Nick Murphy. London: BBC, 2005. Available online: https://youtu.be/ekR_kPJVTtA?list=PLE84B4973D9F49E44

2 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.