Cai Guo-Qiang's Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan
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In preparation for the retrospective of the artist Cai Guo-Qiang that opened in early 2008, painting, paper, and object/sculpture conservators worked on simultaneous projects in conjunction with the artist’s studio. In particular, the Guggenheim Conservation Department treated one of his early art installations from the collection entitled Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan (1996), which incorporates approximately 108 sheepskin floats, tree branches, ephemera, and running automobile engines. The project raised an interesting and challenging conservation problem since the sheepskins must remain fully inflated for the duration of the exhibition. The sheepskins are oil-cured ethnographic objects, which were historically used in China as raft floats (today they are made for the tourist industry). The project, therefore, was unique in that it dealt with the conservation of traditional ethnographic materials within the context of contemporary art. It also presented a number of variable-media issues, as the raft branches are replaceable and the Toyota car engines require regular servicing.
Extensive research was conducted to determine an appropriate treatment for the sheepskins that would allow them to remain filled with air throughout the exhibition. In the past, leaks in the sheepskins were patched with leather and adhesive. Although such attempts have temporarily made the sheepskins inflatable, they have progressively become more deteriorated and are now unable to hold air for more than a few hours, thus compromising the aesthetic of the work. Projects conservator Esther Chao worked closely with sculpture conservator Nathan Otterson, as well as the artist himself, to design an ingenious treatment for the sheepskins that would ensure their survival. Extremely time-consuming and meticulous, their proposed solution was endorsed by the artist and curators. Each sheepskin was opened and a thin layer of epoxy was introduced onto the interior surface to render them airtight. The epoxy set over a period of 8 hours while the sheepskin was inflated, allowing it to retain its shape. The epoxy worked well with the aesthetic of the art and proved to be compatible with the natural oils and materials of the sheepskin. The end result was a translucent coating that did not change the original exterior surface. The artwork now no longer requires constant maintenance and will not be damaged through mechanical manipulation during its installation preparation. This significant and large treatment has stabilized the piece for travel, exhibition, and storage, thereby extending its long-term preservation.