Friday, April 16

The Chinese Explosive Artist: Gai Guo-Qiang

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Cai Guo-Qiang in front of a 2013 installation in Brisbane, Australia. Photo credit: Lucy Rees

My work is sometimes like the poppy flower. It has this almost romantic side, but yet it also represents a poison,” says Cai Guo-Qiang, who harnesses the explosive power of gunpowder to create epic works that are born in violent on-site acts of performance.

Cai Guo-qiang, Homeland. The gunpowder-on-paper work was created on September 25, 2013 for Christie's inaugural Shanghai auction, where it will be sold for charity. (Christie's)

Cai Guo-Qiang, Homeland. The gunpowder-on-paper work was created on September 25, 2013 for Christie’s inaugural Shanghai auction, where it will be sold for charity. (Christie’s)


When looking at Guo-Qiang’s drawing, one see scorch marks and can even smell the ingrained gunpowder itself, and the thin veils of watery background wash which make up an impressive experience to the viewer.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s drawing reflected in a pool, it all adds up to a powerful, impressive and contemplative experience. Credit: Whitworth

For his show Inopportune at MASS MoCA, Cai explores catastrophe, pain and the meaning of terrorism in the world since September 11th with an installation of tumbling cars that follow a path through the air. In neighboring galleries, a video imagines a car bomb in Times Square and a series of stuffed tigers pierced by arrows elicits a disturbing, visceral reaction. “Behind all this is a very earnest and frank look at our society today,” says Cai.

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, China. He was trained in stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 to 1985, and his work has since crossed multiple mediums within art including drawing, installation, video, and performance. Cai began to experiment with gunpowder in his hometown Quanzhou, and continued exploring its properties while living in Japan from 1986 to 1995. This inquiry eventually led to the development of his signature outdoor explosion events. Drawing upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, his artworks respond to culture and history and establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them. His explosion art and installations are imbued with a force that transcends the two-dimensional plane to engage with society and nature.

Cai lived in Japan between 1986 to 1995, and as his reputation grew in the 1990s, he moved to the US in September 1995. He is now universally acclaimed as a contemporary artist synonymous with gunpowder, whose explosive events and ignited drawings have become site-specific works used to celebrate historic occasions.

Cai Guo-Qiang creates a gunpowder drawing to be sold for charity on September 25, 2013 as part of Christie's celebrations of its September 26 Shanghai auction. (Christie's)

Cai Guo-Qiang creates a gunpowder drawing on September 25, 2013 at Union Church in Shanghai as part of Christie’s celebrations of its September 26 Shanghai auction. (Christie’s)

Cai was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1999, the Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007, and the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2009. In 2012, he was honored as a Laureate for the prestigious Praemium Imperiale, which recognizes lifetime achievement in the arts across categories not covered by the Nobel Prize. In the same year, he was named as one of the five artists to receive the first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts for his outstanding commitment to international cultural exchange. His recent honors include the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Award in 2015 and the Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Art (BACA), the Japan Foundation Awards, and the Asia Arts Award Honoree in 2016.

The Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang (b 1957, Quanzhou, Fujian) experimented with the medium of gunpowder for the first time at the age of twenty-seven. Gunpowder had been readily available in his hometown through family connections, which gave him access to several domestic firecracker manufacturing businesses. Cai embarked on a new artistic methodology by working directly with gunpowder on canvas. These early efforts were often nothing short of disastrous. He was unfamiliar with gunpowder’s chemical composition, was unable to control violent explosions and thoroughly burnt his canvases. While crediting his grandmother for showing him how to use rags to stamp fires out, he soon realized that to be able to extinguish a fire was as important as to ignite one.



‘My fixation for this material comes from something fundamental and essential. I want to explore the relationship between the powers of destruction and creation. Artists have always been attracted to and been in awe of unpredictability, spontaneity, and uncontrollability. Sometimes these qualities can be social or conceptual. But sometimes they are very physical, biological, and emotional. The act of making gunpowder drawings is connected to a more-than-20-year interest in working two-dimensionally and to my childhood dream of becoming a painter.’

His many solo exhibitions and projects over the past three decades include Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2006 and his retrospective I Want to Believe, which opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2008. Cai served as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. His solo exhibition Da Vincis do Povo toured across Brazil in 2013, traveling from Brasilia to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It was the most visited exhibition by a living artist worldwide that year, attracting over one million visitors. In June 2015, Cai created the explosion event Sky Ladder in his hometown Quanzhou. The artwork became the centerpiece of the Netflix documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald. Fireflies, his largest public art project in the United States in the past decade, launched in Philadelphia in September 2017.

Major solo exhibitions in 2017 included October at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow and The Spirit of Painting at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. In 2018, his explosion event City of Flowers in the Sky was realized above Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence and marked the opening of his solo exhibition Flora Commedia at the Uffizi Galleries. Latest solo exhibitions in 2019 include In the Volcano at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, The Transient Landscape at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Cuyahoga River Lightning at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

He currently lives and works in New York.