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Remember when those 16,000 dead pigs went floating down a river in Shanghai last year? The event prompted a lot of questions about China's environmental policies and a lot of disgust. And now the animals have helped inspire a riveting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum. The show is called "The Ninth Wave," and it's by one of the top Chinese contemporary artists Cai Guo-Qiang. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here in the atrium of the Power Station of Art, and the first work you see is a giant boat. It's covered in barnacles, and there are all these animals on it. You've got a leopard, a panda, a giraffe, and they're all sick. They are kind of hanging off the edges of the boat. I'm talking to people who've come here to kind of get their impressions of this. And a moment ago, I was talking to a woman named Rachel Wang. She's actually an art teacher here in Shanghai.

RACHEL WANG: (Through translator) I feel that Cai Guo-Qiang is trying to show that the survival of animals in the natural environment is like our own survival. When we run into difficult situations, we all become very helpless.

LANGFITT: Like many visitors, Chen Xiaomei, is disturbed by what she sees. Chen, who wears pearls and a bright orange blouse, is a retired manager of a big real estate development company here.

CHEN XIAOMEI: (Through translator) I felt in my heart that these animals are very pitiful. They're about to die, and they cling to Noah's ark trying to survive.

LANGFITT: The artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, says he thought about the tide of dead pigs while he was constructing the boat. Cai lives in New York and spoke while visiting Beijing.

CAI GUO-QIANG: (Through translator) My feeling was like everyone's. This was so unacceptable. So many dead pigs floating on the river - it's an outrageous thing.

LANGFITT: The animals draped across the boat aren't real. Cai had a factory make them out of wool and Styrofoam. He delivered the boat, a real fishing vessel, from his hometown in South China on a barge. It made for an arresting image sailing past the gleaming towers of Shanghai's financial district.

GUO-QIANG: (Through translator) Because Shanghai has the Huangpu River, I thought it called out for a boat. In addition, the museum is beside the river. So if I use a boat like Noah's ark to ship the animals, the feeling is very good. The message of the artwork can reach the city and the masses.

LANGFITT: The Power Station of Art opened nearly two years ago and is China's first state-run contemporary art museum. It's housed inside a former power planet and resembles London's Tate Modern. Most of the work in this exhibit focuses on the environment. And this one's called "Silent Ink." It's a waterfall of black ink, and it plunges from the ceiling into this huge room and splatters into a 5,300 gallon lake carved out of the museum floor that's roomed by mounds of crushed concrete and rebar. And it kind of looks like a scene from a Chinese landscape painting built with industrial waste. The smell of ink actually makes me feel kind of nauseous.

I'm in another gallery, looking at videos of some of Cai's pyrotechnic explosions for which he's well known. And across the way is the most directly political installation in the whole exhibit. It's called "Head On," and it has these dozens of wolves, and they're actually leaping across the ceiling and then crashing into a glass wall. Now the work debuted in Berlin in 2006, and it's about ideology and pack mentality. But one of the visitors I was talking to, a guy named Li Hongyu - he's a local teacher, and he's here with his son. Li - when he looks at this, he sees echoes of China's chaotic political history.

LI HONGYU: (Through translator) Some may think this is about the Berlin wall. But I think about problems in China. It's a reflection of the Cultural Revolution.

LANGFITT: The Cultural Revolution was a political nightmare that ran from 1966 to 1976, whipped up by Mao and his supporters. Children informed on their parents. Students beat their teachers, and an estimated 1 million died. Despite the show's tough theme, Li Xu, the museum's deputy director of planning says the local government was cool of it.

LI XU: (Through translator) When I accompanied officials to see the exhibition, a lot of them liked it because Chinese public media can no longer avoid discussing environmental problems. Look at many newspapers, many magazines - they all discuss pollution and how to control it.

LANGFITT: Not everybody immediately grasped the artist's message here. I'm back down at that boat with all the sick animals. And I was just talking to a couple of students, Marina and Sherry, and they were actually taking pictures of each other in front of the animals. And this was their reaction.

SHERRY: They're cute.

LANGFITT: They're cute?

SHERRY: Yeah, don't you think so? For example, that tiger - I just told my friend, look, look, his eyes - it's just so funny, I mean.

LANGFITT: How do you think the animals are doing? Do you think they're doing well or not so well?

SHERRY: Seems not, no.

LANGFITT: Not so well.

SHERRY: Yeah, yeah.

LANGFITT: "The Ninth Wave" has already attracted more than 20,000 visitors, and it has another two months to go. So far, it's the museum's most popular show. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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