Peasant Da Vincis

Peasant Da Vincis
flying saucer
Du Wenda’s Flying Saucer D, fashioned from aluminum, propeller blades, and LEDs, on the rooftop of the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.

In 2004, the Chinese artist and collector Cai Guo-Qiang began to hear stories about fantastic “peasant inventions” trickling out of the Chinese countryside: submarines, airplanes, robots, and even “UFOs,” fashioned in tiny backyard workshops by people without easy access to technical information, tools, and proper materials.

The following year, Cai would acquire his first invention, a fish-shaped submarine — replete with eyes, fins, and painted depth markings on the side — named Twilight No. 1.

The sub, which is pedal-power-propelled by its pilot, is one of a number of submersibles built by Li Yuming, a 70-year-old with a grade-school education who lives in Wuhan. Having mortgaged his house to fund his work, Li rises each day to tinker with his submarines, working just outside the door from his wife, who, as Cai recounts, “watches his shadow at work.”

Nine inventors with the painted slogan Peasants — Making a Better City, a Better Life, by Cai Guo-Qiang.

The life of a would-be peasant inventor is not an easy one, Cai tells me over breakfast at The Peninsula hotel in Shanghai one morning. When Li built a second, larger submarine — named, naturally, Twilight No. 2 — and set out to sail it down the river, “the government was worried that he would have a liability issue if it sunk,” Cai says. Authorities were also concerned it would clog the traffic of local waterways. “So the government river authorities towed the boat to a subsidiary river where there’s less traffic, and just let it sink.”

As an artist, Cai has become known primarily for his work with the traditional Chinese media of gunpowder and fireworks (I first met him a number of years ago at the Fireworks by Grucci test compound on Long Island, N.Y.); his largest audience came as organizer of the fireworks program at the Beijing Olympics.

But he also has something of a curatorial and collecting bent (among other things, the Socialist Realist work of Konstantin Maksimov, a Russian artist who toured China in a moment of Sino-Soviet outreach).

After Li’s submarines, Cai went on to purchase any number of Chinese mechanical readymades, ranging across the countryside to distant villages, buying functioning airplanes in Sichuan province (the inventor, Wang Qiang, used plastic bathroom drainage tubes for the fuel tank), rickshaw-pulling robots in Tongxian, flying saucers in Xiaoxian, and even a working submarine made from fused oil drums in Fuyang.

The bulk of these devices were displayed this past summer in the show Peasant Da Vincis, at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, set amidst propagandistic banners that proclaimed aphorisms inspired by the creators themselves, e.g., “Never learned how to land.”

Atop the building spun a (non-)flying saucer by Du Wenda, while on the second floor, Wu Yulu conducted a “robot workshop” demonstrating a delightful range of automata, from a chess-playing contraption to a robotic interpretation of artist Yves Klein’s famous Leap into the Void. A somber note was struck by the placement of a shattered motor, the remnants of a plane built by Tan Chengnian, who died in 2007 after he crashed his third airplane.

“There’s something common shared between all these inventors,” Cai says. “They want to fight their gravity, and the restraint of the circumstances that they find themselves in.” The act of creation is more important than the result. (“What’s important isn’t whether you can fly,” announced one banner.)

While five of the inventors who came to the show’s opening had created airplanes or other flying machines, Cai notes that for three of them, the trip to Shanghai was their first commercial flight. When Cai asked Wu Shuzai, the creator of a rough-hewn wooden helicopter (which some compared to a chicken coop) with rotor blades repurposed from a threshing machine, where he wanted to go if he could get his craft aloft, his answer was the capital of Jiangxi province — basically a few towns over. “That’s where he wants to go,” Cai says. “The nearest idea of a city he has is a country town.”

The notion of DIY home industry in China invariably recalls Mao Zedong’s doomed drive, during the Great Leap Forward, to ramp up steel production through a 600,000-strong network of “backyard furnaces.” What the program had in revolutionary fervor it lacked in logistical organization and smelting know-how — the resulting iron output was substandard and essentially had to be scrapped.

Where Peasant Da Vincis diverges from this precedent — and from the enormous Chinese manufacturing power also on display in Shanghai last summer at the World Expo — is that with these inventions, “peasants are trying to find their own voices and their own creativity, courageously in a very controlled environment.”

China, says Cai, “is desperately trying to transition from a society where everything’s ‘made in China’ to where things are ‘created in China.’” Among these backyard boffins may be some future Nobel Prize winner.

But in the end, Cai’s desire is more immediately personal. “What I’m really collecting is my childhood dreams.”

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Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and Survival City: Adventures Among Ruins of Atomic America. He contributes to many publications, ranging from the New York Times Magazine to Wired to Artforum.

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