View of “Peasant Da Vincis,” 2010. Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

In his recent Shanghai show “Peasant Da Vincis,” Cai Guo-Qiang posed one of the most pertinent but seldom-asked questions of the moment: What is an artist? Poignantly juggling notions of museology, art history and freedom of imagination, it also expanded the sculptural category of found objects to found artists, interrogating the line between creativity and copying, and going some length toward offering an aesthetic of the shanzhai or “knockoff” creative cultures of China’s vast inland.

Since 2005, Cai Guo-Qiang has collected examples of mechanical inventions made by so-called peasants. These contraptions have ranged from life-size rickshaw automatons to ill-fated flying saucers like the one by Du Wenda that appeared as a work of artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu at the Cai-curated Chinese Pavilion of that year’s Venice Biennale. Five years later this saucer hangs precariously from the museum’s roof, while another appears to have crashed at its base.

There is something persistently theatrical running through the exhibition, a feeling aided by the stage-like quality of its venue. The Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), so named for the luxury development that surrounds it, is housed in the former Royal Asiatic Society building, a slender piece of Art Deco functionalism completed in 1932. Refurbished by British architect David Chipperfield, RAM is really a miniature Tate Modern, including a rooftop cafe overlooking the river. Into this milieu Cai Guo-Qiang brings his peasant da Vincis. Huge graffiti-like script on the building’s exterior shouts: “Never learned how to land.” The full quote from one of the folk inventors and included in the catalogue continues, “What’s important isn’t whether you can fly.” From his early “Project for Extraterrestrials” explosion events to his leaping wolves and neon-bomb Chevrolet installations, the sky has always figured prominently in Cai’s work. “Projects for Extraterrestrials” aimed to communicate with life beyond earth, with the intention of both trivializing and transcending the differences between Western and Eastern art. What’s important in the current project is a similar desire on the part of peasant inventors to communicate with the “stars.” On one of the museum’s street-facing walls appear the words “Peasants – Making a Better City, a Better Life,” subverting Shanghai Expo’s platitudinous slogan “Better City, Better Life” and setting up an acerbic contrast between the opulence of the official, shiny Shanghai and the private dreams of those whose work keeps it shining. Crucially, although Cai is the son of teachers and now a world-famous artist, he continues to self-identify as a peasant, not disingenuously.

Fairytale, 2010. Grass lawn, 60 live birds, wild flowering plants, airplanes by Chen Zongzhi and Wang Qiang, submarines by Li Yuming, helicopters by Xu Bin and Wu Shuzhai, flying saucers by Du Wenda.

If the setting is theatrical, the exhibition itself unfolds as a play in five acts. The outdoor prologue gives way to a dolorous Act I, a field of delicate steel spikes greeting the viewer in a darkened first-floor room like so many fishing rods, and perhaps recalling Mao Zedong’s exhortation to “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” Mounted on each spikehead are a miniature projector and fan. To these are tethered kites onto which the projectors beam footage taken during the fatal maiden voyage of Tan Chengnian’s homemade airplane in Shandong province in 2007. As the kites lightly bob, the film fragments duck in and out of view while the hum of the fans remains constant. Cai Guo-Qiang has played with kites before, often using them as quintessentially Chinese symbols that also refer to freedom tethered. Here, wry parody is employed–Quixotic, not caustic. Ultimately this installation is a paean to the terrestrial limits of imagination, an Icarian story of creativity circumscribed. The second act is lighter in spirit. An atelier of automaton artists mechanically and madly recreate “original” works of art. A robotic Damien Hirst dots dot paintings. Next to him Jackson Pollock splatters action paintings. Two Yves Klein models oscillate in a paddling pool, one swinging the other by the feet to recreate Le Bufle. Further on is another Klein, a side-show contraption that remakes his Leap into the Void montage. (The robot artists’ limited edition works may be purchased. Bravo! murmur Benjamin’s and Warhol’s shades). Besides being fun, it seems that within the conceptual tempest of this work, Cai questions China’s fraught relationship with the notion of originality.

Yves Klein’s Living Brush, 2010. Metal, electronics, secondhand materials. Made by Wu Yulu.

The fourth floor returns us to contemplativeness. Suspended in a traditional museological display above a real grass lawn, in an atrium ringed by the fifth-floor balcony, are dozens of “peasant” inventions. Submarines populate the bottom, then ships, followed by airplanes and helicopters, and finally satellites, like so many taxidermied birds. In a sense these “stuffed” inventions really were once alive, embodying their makers’ hopes and creative impulses. It makes for a dramatic if sardonic tableau. Finally on the sixth floor are documentary photographs memorializing Soviet space exploration. Of course, while invention and space exploration remain, the Soviet Union is gone. Ending the show on this note of ambiguous efflorescence seems somehow appropriate.

The aesthetic leitmotif of the exhibition is the ambiguous memento mori. Throughout, Cai seems to parody collecting in general and contemporary art in particular. But it also documents flights of imagination, however seemingly mundane. All collecting is somehow romantic precisely because it is a form of stopping time, of attempting to capture it. But what is actually captured? These are not real da Vincis, yet they have the strength and determination to pursue their dreams, and this makes them heroic. If they are truly “peasant da Vincis” though, who or what is Cai? Here he has collected the particular creative efforts of amateur inventors as works under his curatorial control, a gesture not far removed from Duchamp’s adoption of found objects. Rightly, the appropriateness of the appropriation goes unexplained.      Christopher Moore