Surfing the Spectacle

As Good As Dead

[Guest Entry by Keith Boylan with editorial assistance by SurfingtheSpectacle]

If I hoped to make a conservationist out of you, I could try telling you that 700
black rhinos were killed in South Africa over the course of 2013, more than any
other year in human history.

Or I could just show you this:


The little rhinoceros in the picture is crying because his mother was chased off of
a cliff by dogs and poachers, who were looking to harvest her horn. There is a
great demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and other Asian countries, where it is believed the horn holds cancer-curing properties.

No medical evidence supports this claim of miraculous cure, but that’s probably of little interest to Gertjie.


This is Gertjie. She’s not the same baby rhino we see in the first image, but she went through a similar experience. She was traumatized when she watched poachers brutally kill her mother. She still doesn’t like to sleep alone.

We can read stark statistics about poaching, deforestation, the meat industry and other awful things, and be remarkably unfazed. But there’s a sharp emotional impact when we actually see vivid images of dead and wounded animals.

Like, say, 16,000 dead pigs.


These sanitation workers are retrieving pig carcasses from the Huangpu River in
Shanghai, China. Thousands of pigs were found floating downstream in 2013, the likely result of illegal dumping from meat factories and other black market meat operations. Chinese authorities insisted that the pigs had no effect on Shanghai’s water quality. Many found the spectacle disturbing.

Including this guy:


This is Cai Guo-Qiang. You can think of him as sort of a Chinese Damien Hirst, well known, well off, and creating art on a massive scale. But unlike Hirst, Guo-Qiang’s work actually makes an honest attempt at social and political commentary.

The thing behind him is an abandoned fishing boat that has been repurposed to act as a makeshift ark. Its passengers are lifelike sculptures of sick-looking animals. Currently, it lives in The Ninth Wave, Guo-Qiang’s 2014 solo exhibition in Shanghai’s Power Station of Art museum.


But getting there was quite an adventure. Guo-Qiang’s boat travelled down the Huangpu River, the very same waterway infested with dead pigs the year before. It’s a reference to that event, as well as to the world’s wider environmental crisis. Creatures from around the globe appear clinging to the dilapidated vessel as they succumb to illness. From afar, it probably looked as if the rickety boat was carrying actual ailing animals, a sight that would be almost as unnerving as the thousands of dead pigs.


In other works, Cai Guo-Qiang utilizes this same sculptural realism to evoke the mysterious, sublime power of animals.


Head On (2006) is an enormous sculpture depicting a huge pack of wolves ramming themselves into a wall, falling down, and then getting back in line to do it again. This one is not so much about the environment as it is about the dangers of mob mentality and zealous ideology. It’s deeply political, especially considering that Guo-Qiang was a child during Mao’s revolution, and that the Chinese government continues to oppose creative dissent.


Guo-Qiang’s view of life on earth can also be strangely affirming. Heritage (2013) depicts nearly a hundred different animals drinking from a watering hole. It preaches an idea of pan-special oneness and quietly notes that every living creature draws its life from the same sources. This work offers a complementary vision to The Ninth Wave with its boat full of sick animals. It may be true that all living creatures have a shared fate, Guo-Qiang seems to say, but our actions can determine what that fate will be.

P.S. I feel bad about the downer bit with the rhinos at the beginning, so here is a link to a cute video of Gertjie playing with her friend, Lammie the lamb:

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