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Tuesday, April 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Artist's freeze-frame car wreck to light up SAM entry

Seattle Times art critic

Coinciding with the visit of Chinese leader Hu Jintao, Seattle Art Museum has announced the acquisition of a dramatic new installation by Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Composed of nine full-size automobiles tumbling through space amid starbursts of LED lights, the piece will be suspended along the length of the museum's new First Avenue lobby when it opens next year.

Prominent among a rising group of contemporary Chinese artists, Cai is known for idea-driven artworks that spring from Chinese cultural traditions, including landscape painting, feng shui and Chinese medicine. Cai's incorporation of gunpowder, also considered by many to be a Chinese invention, has been a hallmark of his work.

But it's pure visual firepower that makes this installation, titled "Inopportune: Stage One," a standout.

The piece made a stunning debut in the huge converted factory space at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and has the power and scale to dominate the lofty expanse of SAM's new entrance hall. The nine Fords, suspended from the ceiling, appear to catapult in a time-lapse car wreck. They will span the blocklong space from the new Union Street entrance to the lobby of the original Robert Venturi-designed building. Cai describes the work as "like freeze frames at points in time; nine cars make the story of one car."

To expand the theme, SAM also has acquired Cai's 90-second video "Illusion," documenting a car as it explodes in New York's Times Square. The video will show in an adjacent gallery, along with the actual burned-out remains of the car.

The works were given to the museum by trustee Robert M. Arnold.

Seattle Art Museum downtown is closed for an expansion project that will increase exhibition space by 70 percent. Designed by Brad Cloepfil of the Portland firm Allied Works, the new building is a joint project with Washington Mutual and connects with the original SAM building and the new Washington Mutual Tower on Second Avenue. Initially, Washington Mutual also will occupy the top floors of the museum building through a lease agreement, until SAM is ready to take over the additional space.

The project is part of a two-pronged expansion that includes the new Olympic Sculpture Park on the downtown waterfront, slated to open in October.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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