Nine white cars suspended in various stages of flight – with blinking LED lights streaking in cartoon-like drama from their window screens – appear to be flying through the centre of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York. The centrepiece of Cai Guo-Qiang's show is a step-by-step depiction of a car bomb. It's possibly the most spectacular and authoritative use of the museum's difficult central atrium in its 50-year history, and a powerful introduction to Cai's exhibition I Want to Believe.
Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who is responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is something of a superstar in the art world. He made his name in the 1980s and 90s by trailing dynamite onto a canvas, covering it with wood, then setting light to it. These performances drew audiences of hundreds. He also "extended" the Great Wall of China with a 10,000m-long series of small explosions. These ephemeral puffs of smoke exist only as photographs but were witnessed by the thousands of people in neighbouring villages.
Beginning at the bottom of the Guggenheim's infamous ramps, the visitor encounters 12 stuffed tigers suspended, twisted and writhing in aggression, pierced by scores of arrows. Continuing up the ramp are 99 wolves. It's a piece of installation art, originally shown in Berlin, but it's hard to imagine that it wasn't made for this very ramp. The wolves, in the same toy style as the tigers below them, are chasing each other, blindly hurtling until they tumble, crashing into a wall where some fall, clearly fatally, to the ground. In Germany, they met their end at a wall the exact thickness of the Berlin Wall, but here it's just a thin pane of glass.
The final work is Rent Collection Courtyard (1999), which won the Golden Lion Award at the 48th Venice Biennale. It's on the very top section of the ramp, and approaching it while looking down on the spinning cars, pierced tigers and hurtling wolves, one arrives at a semi-complete section of clay figures. Depicting Chinese peasants being attacked by soldiers, the sculptures appear to be abandoned, left half-way through making – a disarming experiences as all of them are left dry, unbaked, intended to crumble. Towards the end just the metal frame and wood used to prop them up is left.
The show is often disturbing at times - the deliberate softness of the tigers, the zippy fairground lights of the car-bomb explosion and the bare, open innocence of the clay figures, the victims of the Peasants Revolt. The installation art is working in tandem with the building. It was a weekend when there was much to see in New York - the Whitney Art Biennale, the Design and the Elastic Mind show at MoMA and the New Museum - but this Guggenheim show blew them all away.
Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 28 May
images David Heald