The images atop this page summarize best what I remember about the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Li Ning’s daring trapeze walk to light the Torch. The (sadly) cancelled tableau showing Kuafu – China’s Icarus/Prometheus – attempting to soar beyond earth itself in pursuit of th Sun’s Fire. Mark Fisher’s extraordinary “flying carpets” ferrying a childlike rendering of mountain-river-sun (“the world”) over the heads of and often interrupting or blocking the ongoing “show” at ground level. And, of course, Cai Guoqiang’s now infamous 29 footprints suggesting an invisible airborne giant had ignored symbolic propriety and marched/bounced disdainfully over the geomantic core of the imperial-Maoist state at Tiananmen. Perhaps not exactly flight but surely over-ride.
All share the same reference: flight, flying, soaring, transcending. But not JUST rising: doing so in the face of great risk of fall and death or extinguishment. Man without machine or Alpine rappel or harness, seeking somehow to beak free, literally transcend time and place (the phrase 跨时空 kua shikong or “time-space-straddling” – a neologism I hadn’t yet encountered- was in constant use within Zhang Yimou’s planning circle.)
Apart from fantasies of China’s new space program and the starry-eyed world of computer gaming, human flight was not– or had not been – a subject of much appeal to that country’s painters or even architects. Yet here it was. Obviously the allure of CGI illusionist technology has a great deal to do with this. But to me anyway the flying carpets in particular, presented almost always as interrupting or o’ermasking some more pedestrian (!) and rectangular activity on the geoplane, seemed to address an issue now inescapable for artists and their supposed watchkeeper/wardens in the government. An issue that was not supposed to exist under Maoist socialism. The ladder of diplomas and prizes that was in earlier times a guarantor of stipend, academic affiliation, and of course access to exhibition space (and more prizes) was creaking, in some places falling completely away. Short of achieving “Red-export” status as singers or dancers, there was no place for talent to harbor, save as supplicants at the bosom of offshore liberal NGO cultural charity.