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Peasant DaVincis at RockBund Art

Ever wanted to build your own submarine from scrap metal? Many months ago I read about a young Chinese man by the name of Tao Xiangli who built one from his tiny home in an alleyway in Beijing. Originally from the country province of Anhui , he toiled long and hard at his invention while working nights in a karaoke bar to earn money. Apparently the submarine really works, as seen here tested in a canal.

A Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang has likened peasant inventors like Tao Xiangli to Leonardo Da Vinci, with his fantastical inventions. After years searching the Chinese countryside for similar stories, he has opened an exhibition featuring many of these inventions and the stories of their inventors at the new Rockbund Art Museum, as a way of exploring individual creativity and freedom from constraint. This is the best exhibition I have been to for years. 

There is an entire floor dedicated to the home-made robots of Wu Yulu. Wu didn’t finish school and was regarded as a slacker, until he started gaining recognition and making money from his tin-pot robots. Now the whole family helps out with their production. There are dog robots, mouse robots, a painting robot and a jumping robot. The highlight is a life-size rickshaw pulling robot, head welded out of a can, who mechanically clunks along saying ‘Wu my father, let me take you to market!’

On the next floor you enter a tall atrium space hung with many home-made flying machines. One looks just like a chicken coop with a wooden rotor. (I believe it had never left the ground until it was flown to Shanghai for the exhibition). Another is made from aerodynamic and lightweight iron (??!). Tao Xiangli’s submarine looks spectacular suspended amongst them from the ceiling, like a miniature tin Hindenberg. 

Is it art? The answer is yes, although it doesn’t really matter. Did it make me think about life and its meaning?  As I walked back through the ground floor I passed a montage of tangled and twisted wreckage from the final, fatal flight of peasant inventor Tan Chengnian in his flimsy home-made plane. Really, this is an exhibition about dreams and the drive to realise them, no matter how outlandish, unlikely or ultimately dangerous those dreams are.