The Whitney Museum has sold a lot of Calder, Hopper and Rothko prints through the years, and a great many T-shirts. But rarely has the Whitney been as consumer-friendly as during its current biennial exhibit, during which museum visitors have frantically jockeyed to pay $500 to $1,000 for Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s stone lions to solve their feng shui woes.
The exhibit closes on June 4, but until then, the chosen ones will have the privilege of buying the little lions made by Mr. Cai. “PLEASE HELP NEW BABY @ HOME MUST HAVE ABUNDANCE OF GOOD CHI!” scrawled one hopeful couple, whose Upper West Side townhouse is flanked by tall buildings, apparently a feng shui disaster. They got lucky: They were picked on April 19 to become one of the lion-owning elite–for $1,461, sales tax included, payable by credit card at the gift shop.
It’s difficult to get one of Mr. Cai’s lions. Some museum goers just don’t have enough bad energy. Some keep returning to the Whitney to reapply, even though only 27 of 99 of the Cai (pronounced “sigh”) lions remain unreserved. They put on their best co-op board-meeting faces to enter into a process that plays on some basic New York neuroses: the need to succeed, the impulse to throw money at a new trend and the urge to make the apartment a thing of beauty.
Meredith Palmer, a private art dealer, applied twice for a lion, but her apartment at 94th and Madison Avenue didn’t have a feng shui problem. On opening night, she filled out an application, claiming that her odd-shaped one-bedroom apartment lacked a “center.”
“I thought if one of his lions could add good feng shui I’d be happy, but they told me things were pretty good as they were.” After a week without hearing from the artist, Ms. Palmer paid admission and applied again–to no avail. But Ms. Palmer won’t give up. She told The Observer that she feels a particular connection to Mr. Cai’s work and may apply once more.
On May 10 at around 3:15 p.m., Iris Kaplan, a painter with electric-blue hair, and her husband, Leonard, arrived at the museum’s first-floor gallery to pick out their lion from Mr. Cai’s exhibit, How Is Your Feng-Shui?: Year 2000 Project for Manhattan . “I want the big one!” said Ms. Kaplan. “I like the very mean-looking one.”
After seeing the exhibit on opening night, Ms. Kaplan filled out the “Stone Lion Application Form,” which asks if you want a $500, $700, $800 or $1,000 lion. The hand-carved lions–made in China based on Mr. Cai’s prototype–are 7 to 18 inches tall and weigh between 38 and 135 pounds.
The gallery was constructed to resemble a Buddhist cave, and in it three computers display a list of 20 potential feng shui problems, from “Hallway slicing the interior in half” to “Building facing sharp angles.” Applicants are encouraged to use the back of the form to sketch their feng shui violations. The CD-ROM used in the exhibit–free with lion purchase–also offers a brief history of the ancient Chinese art of feng shui, which was founded on the notion that people and nature should exist in harmony. According to certain principles, the home can be arranged ergonomically so as to provide the best possible flow of energy. As for how the lions correct a home’s delicate yet intricate energy balance, neither the artist nor the CD-ROM says.
Mr. Cai reviews his applications once a week and his assistant, Jennifer Ma, calls eligible candidates. At their meeting with the artist, clients explain their feng shui worries, often showing him numerous photographs of their apartment. If Mr. Cai deems them worthy, a date is made for him to install a lion. After the installation, Mr. Cai snaps a picture of the lion, usually with its new owner, which is displayed in the former sculpture-occupied niche in the Whitney.
As of May 11, 258 applications had been filled out, 171 calls and 114 appointments had been made, 17 people were waiting for their installations, 16 meetings were pending, 13 people were about to be called and four applications had been rejected. Eighty-seven candidates were deemed ineligible and 37 calls weren’t returned. Ms. Ma said that 10 percent of the applications were “funny notes”–some nice, some not.
Ms. Kaplan had to wait two days for the artist’s house call. Now that she was aware that her bathroom was too close to her kitchen in her apartment at Park Avenue at 80th Street, thereby–according to the CD-ROM–”causing broken family relationships” and “driving away the children,” she wanted the problem fixed before the yin got any worse. “You can’t come before?” she asked while her husband paid for the $1,000 hunk of stone.
The Kaplans were no strangers to the tribulations of off-kilter feng shui. Three years ago, they sold their vacation house near the Canyon Ranch spa in Tucson, which they had meticulously decorated, right down to the Japanese-influenced rock garden in the backyard. Ms. Kaplan said they were going “brain dead” in a town where people only “diet and exercise.” A feng shui master was brought in and proclaimed the Kaplans doomed. “We were never happy there,” admitted Ms. Kaplan. “A lady bought it and got divorced one month later.”
These are the kind of stories that Mr. Cai hears every day as he mulls over how much any given New Yorker needs a lion. People really open up when he goes to their apartments for an installation–showing him their closets, bedrooms, the insides of their medicine cabinets. Recipients range from bankers to bartenders. (Artist Kiki Smith is the only reported well-known buyer.) Applicants even tell Mr. Cai what they think about while lying in bed. “He feels complex emotions coming from this,” said Ms. Ma. “One man said his ex-wife wants the apartment and hoped a lion could ward her off. I mean, there are some things these lions can’t do!
“He encourages people to re-examine their own fates, destinies, environments, their spiritual beliefs as well as engage in art,” said Ms. Ma, translating on behalf of the artist, who speaks limited English, before she led a giddy male trader in a green plaid shirt downstairs to the gift shop cash register. When they returned to the gallery, Ms. Ma slapped a red sticker on a map of Manhattan to represent the trader’s apartment on 50th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. The map’s stickers were clustered mainly on the Upper East Side and in Chelsea.
Scott Rothkopf, 23, a guest curator for the Harvard University Art Museums, bought a $500 lion for his studio apartment on 19th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. Mr. Rothkopf was the first person to buy a lion, but said he was unsure what he’ll do with it when he goes back to Harvard this fall to get a Ph.D. in the history of art and architecture, because he’s not supposed to take the lion out of Manhattan. “Cai told me, don’t leave the lion!” Mr. Rothkopf said of his consultation with the artist, so the lion is headed for Cambridge, too.
Translating, Ms. Ma said that the lions cannot be taken out of Manhattan for logistical and artistic reasons. Logistically, the artist is too busy to make long-distance house calls–much less trek to Brooklyn or Queens. Mr. Cai, who won the Venice Biennale International Award in 1999, had to postpone future installations until June so he could attend biennials in Sydney, Australia, and Lyon, France, and the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland. Ms. Ma said that the shape of the city was instrumental in the process of the lions’ creation.
She also said that Mr. Cai, 43, who was born in the Fujian province of China and moved from Japan with his wife, Wu Hong-Hong, to New York four years ago, wanted to create work for his community.
That community includes Deutsche Bank’s Wall Street office, where a pair of lions guard the lobby, and Morgan Anderson Consulting’s crowded West 24th Street office, which got a $1,000 lion on May 12.
“Cai’s performed an incredibly witty and generous intervention on New York, perhaps the American town most obsessed with trends like feng shui and most stricken by weird apartments,” said Mr. Rothkopf, who submitted an application less than two weeks after the show opened, and had his lion installed April 7 on his windowsill, which faces a church. “Where else would you find front doors opening onto bathrooms?” Mr. Cai’s CD-ROM states that occupants of such apartments “become easy prey to roaming spirits,” which can cause lawsuits.
Initially, Mr. Cai wanted to install a lion on the floor to correct the problem of the front door leading to the stove, but Mr. Rothkopf was worried that he would trip over the Chihuahua-size sculpture. “Even if I may have at first been a little skeptical of feng shui, simply going through the act of carefully considering my living space in consultation with Cai gave me a new sense of my apartment. Just noticing the lion on my windowsill makes me smile, and though I’m not sure if that’s because he’s guarding my studio from a nearby church’s bad energy, that’s feng shui enough for me.”
For decades, New Yorkers were unable to purchase art at the Whitney beyond the gift shop. Galleries are for the rich; museums have been reserved for the paying public to get a quick culture fix and pick up a calendar on their way out. In 1932, the Whitney created the biennial to present recent work by artists who weren’t part of the mainstream and printed a brochure on how to purchase the work, for which the museum later received a 10 percent commission.
In the case of Mr. Cai’s lions, the museum paid for the materials, customs tariffs and airfare–about $21,000. The museum took 50 percent of each lion sale and Mr. Cai got the other half until the museum broke even–now Mr. Cai gets to keep his profits. The Biennial may not have made him rich, but it has certainly gotten Mr. Cai noticed. Last fall, the Museum of Modern Art purchased his large sculpture, Borrowing Your Enemies’ Arrows, for its collection.
“In contemporary art, it’s not an unusual thing to have museums advance funds for work through [a] commission or advance,” said Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Whitney, adding that the museum had provided about 10 of the 97 artists in the show with funds–for which the museum didn’t expect to be reimbursed–to manufacture their art. “The purpose of the work was to provoke this discussion about where boundaries are between [the] public and [the] museum market,” said Mr. Anderson. “Usually, the details are pretty murky.”
Mr. Anderson said the response to the exhibit has been “phenomenal.” “People are charmed in a kind of innocent Western way by the notion of having access to feng shui principles applied to their office or home, and amazed that an artist is giving them personal attention … [the work] poses the question of what happens when life is actually affected by art and not just that art creates an emotional response and connection to memory but is meant to change life directly.”
Mr. Anderson didn’t, but could have, quoted Andy Warhol, who once said, “Good business is the best art.”
John Friedman, 47, the managing director of Easton Hunt Capital Partners, a venture capital firm, bought a $1,000 lion for his midtown office with perilous proximity to St. Peter’s Church and a $1,000 lion for his apartment on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, where the stairway directly faces the street-level front door which will, according Mr. Cai, “increase frictions in both personal and business aspects.” He said he hasn’t sensed any new positive energy since the lions arrived, but he called them “marvelous.” “I thought it was a great idea, and I appreciated the artistic merit,” he said.
Another art collector spent just under $2,000 on two lions to guard the entrance of his six-story townhouse on East 71st Street at Lexington Avenue, where the feng shui violation is that the stairway is directly inside the front door. Mallory Factor, the chairman and president of Mallory Factor Inc., a merchant banking firm, deemed the lions’ price tag “relatively inexpensive.” Mr. Factor’s finacée, Elizabeth Weir, is on the acquisition committee of the Whitney’s photography collection. “Everyone wants a lion,” said Mr. Factor. “We just love them–we like being a part of Cai’s work.”
Jack Tilton, who owns a gallery at 49 Greene Street in Soho, said he has known that his 10th-floor apartment on East 94th Street suffers from bad feng shui since he combined two units 16 years ago. He said “the symmetry and flow of it … was always problematic … the centering was the issue.” He and his wife, Connie, bought two $500 lions to stand guard outside the door of the apartment.
“I feel more centered,” he said. “This ephemeral Zen thing is more what it’s about than commerce.”
Ben Segal, 31, bought a medium lion to offset the long, narrow corridor leading to the front door of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Sarah Pihl, 26. After reviewing their application, Mr. Cai came to their West 16th Street apartment straight from his Great Jones Street apartment. The garden behind their duplex has tall walls and is surrounded by high buildings–what they thought were two serious feng shui problems, since tall buildings are said to block energy and therefore limit self-growth. Ms. Pihl said that things have been going pretty smoothly for them since the lion arrived on April 18. In early May, they came home to find a note on their door saying that film director Abel Ferrara would pay a tenant to use their apartment for four days of shooting. The film deal fell through, but nevertheless, said Ms. Pihl, “it’s kind of nice–you walk in and you see it there and it’s your lion. Whether or not it has any real effect, I don’t know.”
At noon on May 12, Mr. Cai and Ms. Ma wheeled a large lion into Iris and Leonard Kaplan’s Upper East Side apartment to remedy the oven’s closeness to the bathroom Ms. Kaplan had installed for her painting models.
Ms. Ma explained that many apartments’ feng shui is ruined during a renovation, and in this case, Ms. Kaplan’s new bathroom had thrown off the harmony of the apartment she bought 40 years ago and had gutted twice. By the front door was a family portrait featuring Ms. Kaplan, her husband and their four daughters when the Kaplans retook their wedding vows two years ago at a Buddhist ceremony in a temple on Riverside Drive and 105th Street. A large 17th-century Buddha head sat near a table on which sat a half-eaten mango, some newspapers and a copy of Vanity Fair .
Mr. Cai and Ms. Ma unpacked the lion and set it down.
“That’s a big lion,” declared Mr. Kaplan before heading to his store, Kaplan Jewelers, on West 47th Street.
“I love it!” exclaimed Ms. Kaplan, and then offered to paint Mr. Cai’s portrait.
Just as Mr. Cai and Ms. Ma were about to leave for lunch, to be followed by an appointment on Riverside Drive and 99th Street, Ms. Kaplan asked the artist what he thought of her new gold Chinese dragon sculpture stationed by the front door to greet visitors. Her new lion, called “Number One,” sat facing the oven, and a mirrored column made it look like two lions were guarding the kitchen. He told her that the dragon was “marvelous.” And that it was “in exactly the right spot.”
Two weeks later, Ms. Kaplan described the lion’s effect on her life.
“I think our feng shui has improved. The housekeeper’s cooking has improved … everything,” she said, “has improved!”