After 10 years of hanging from the ceiling, Seattle Art Museum’s “Inopportune: Stage One” — aka “the tumbling Tauruses” — come back down to earth.
After a decade of dangling in the lobby of Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the “tumbling Tauruses” are coming down.
The artwork — nine white sedans, hung from the 32-foot ceiling and bristling with LED light tubes — is “Inopportune: Stage One” by China-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. It was a 75th-birthday present to the museum from the late financier Robert A. Arnold and, according to SAM’s estimates, has greeted around 10 million visitors over the past 10 years. SAM declined to give a precise estimate of what the cars are worth but allowed that they might be the most expensive Ford Tauruses in the world.
“I already miss it,” said David Snead, who works in admissions at SAM and says he became the “go-to person” for visitors who had questions about the cars. Some people loved them and some hated them, he said. But the most gratifying responses came from children on school trips who seemed to be dragging their feet at the door but, once they spotted the cars overhead, got excited.
“Their faces light up and become open to the possibilities the museum might have,” Snead said. “It was poignant, like ‘maybe the museum isn’t such a bad place after all.’ ” Sometimes students would stand beneath one of the cars, he said, and “act as if they’re a superhero, holding up the car with their superpowers.”
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Cai, who first installed “Inopportune” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), specializes in explosions.
Over the course of his career, he has engineered massive pyrotechnic spectacles, fired off gunpowder to burn patterns onto paper and once lit a 6-mile fuse between the Great Wall of China and the Gobi Desert, searing the landscape with dragon-like patterns. The 2004 MASS MoCA installation of “Inopportune” included an accompanying piece titled “Inopportune: Stage Two” — a replica of a tiger flying through the air and pincushioned with arrows.
Though some visitors think of “Inopportune” as whimsical or silly, Snead said, it has more serious undertones. Cai, who lived through the Cultural Revolution as an adolescent, makes politically and socially provocative work: For a 2014 show referencing environmental destruction in China, Cai designed a waterfall and 5,300-gallon lake of ink in a former Shanghai power plant. Critics have noted that the Ford Tauruses of SAM’s “Inopportune” were once the most popular car in America — and that, in China, white is associated with mourning.
Snead said that when he mentions those facts to visitors who think the flying cars are frivolous, they tend to change their minds. “It’s a work associated with loss, remembrance and death,” he said. “But it can also be inspirational — not just as great art, but feats of engineering, comic books, all kinds of things.”
Once the cars are taken down, they’ll be put into one of SAM’s storage sites, said Lauren Mellon, director of museum services.
Where, exactly, will they go? “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” she said.
SAM will replace “Inopportune” with a large painting by Kehinde Wiley as part of its special exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic,” opening on Feb. 11.
“In a way, it’s taken our whole museum to take the cars down,” Mellon said. “It’s disrupted everyone from our admissions to our guard force — our poor staff is having a hard time navigating the building.”
Fabrication Specialties, which has worked with SAM on dozens of projects, from the Olympic Sculpture Park to hanging large paintings, is coordinating removal of the nine cars and approximately 500 LED light tubes. “This project is not particularly difficult,” said Fabrication Specialties owner Larry Tate. “It’s a tight space, and we’re flipping cars that weren’t designed for this … but we’ve done pieces the size of a house.”
SAM says the cars should all be down by this weekend. Even though he’ll miss them, Snead said he’s looking forward to the Wiley exhibition, which features large-scale paintings of African Americans in the meticulous style of 18th-century aristocratic portraits.
“His painting is so relevant to what’s going on today and elevates the conversation to a whole other level,” Snead said. “And I’m excited anytime we get something new.”