Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows delivers a timeless message rooted in Chinese philosophy and expressed in the Western vocabulary of the readymade. Built on the skeleton of an old fishing boat excavated near Cai's birthplace, the sculpture, suspended aboveground, is pierced with 3,000 made-in-China arrows and flies the national flag.
The title—which alludes to a text from the third century (known as Sanguozhi)—refers to an episode in which the general Zhuge Liang, facing an imminent attack from the enemy, manages to replenish a depleted store of arrows. According to legend, Zhuge Liang tricked the enemy by sailing across the Yangtze river through the thick mist of early dawn with a surrogate army made of straw, while his soldiers remained behind yelling and beating on drums. Mistaking the pandemonium for a surprise attack, the enemy showered the decoys with volleys of arrows. Thus the general returned triumphantly with a freshly captured store of weapons.
Surreptitiously gathering strength from one's opponent is also a strategic principle in martial arts. Turning to a militaristic episode and a cultural practice, Cai not only suggests a defensive strategy in the face of foreign intervention, but also creates a poetic metaphor in the image of a wounded body transcending pain and floating in a cloud of feathered arrows.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 362.