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Yesterday afternoon, I gathered with Shanghai’s art community on the western bank of the Huangpu River to watch Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang unveil his new floating installation, The Ninth Wave.

It was a glorious day, weather-wise. And following a drawn-out press conference, at which I ate too many jam scones, the artist led us all down to the waterside, smiling placidly. The brown river shimmered in the bright sunshine, reflecting the stately architecture of the city’s financial district, and everyone jostled for position, not wanting to miss the action.

Tension built as art critics and hangers-on (having merged with slightly bewildered riverfront tourists) frantically scanned the horizon for the installation.

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Luckily for us, the artist, who has a penchant for pyrotechnics, did not disappoint.

At roughly 4:30 p.m., slightly behind schedule, a battered fishing vessel began approaching our position, flagged by two small police boats. As it drew nearer, a rather horrifying vision met the rubbernecking onlookers: tigers, pandas, camels, giraffes, and other assorted stuffed animals lay strewn about the deck of the stricken fishing ship, as if in the final throes of life.

I suppose it was obvious to most that the dying animals—evoking a kind of nightmarish vision of Noah’s Ark, or The Life of Pi gone wrong—represented the artist’s views on China’s ever-worsening ecological situation.

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Many of us Shanghai residents, who regularly contend with disturbingly high levels of air pollution, will remember the 16,000 rotting pig carcasses that were yanked out of the river last year, having been dumped by farmers upstream.

Staring at the brown, murky water of Shanghai’s river, one can’t help but see how China’s economic progress has come at a hefty environmental cost. And by addressing this issue in the public realm, perhaps the humanism of one of the country’s most celebrated artists can help spearhead the cleanup. We can only hope!

Photos: Courtesy of George Wyndham

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