Cai Guo-Qiang is an artist that is renowned for mastering the medium of gunpowder, breaking away from more traditional methods of art. His works are mesmerising yet paradoxical; meeting grounds of control and frenzy as Cai reins in normally uncontainable explosions to create enthralling pieces. One such example is Nine Cars (Lot 991), a piece that takes the contradictions that are characteristic of the artist’s art to a whole new level, deftly combining beauty and violence; serenity and chaos. Nine Cars was created in the year 2004, when Cai’s works explored almost exclusively the theme of violence. In this year, the artist created installation pieces called the Inopportune series, which centred around the artist’s reactions to 9/11. The two installation pieces, Inopportune: Stage One and Inopportune: Stage Two respectively, portray nine cars and nine tigers. All of these, machines and beasts likewise, are suspended in mid-air, as either light rods or arrows impale their bodies. This preoccupation with brutality culminates in frozen moments—the cars are suspended pre-explosion, while the tigers grimace as their bodies are pierced by dozens of arrows. Much in the same way, Nine Cars depicts the artist’s fascination with the moment when carnage and tranquillity converge. What is most curious about the piece is that it evokes the layout of the Guggenheim installation of Inopportune: Stage One in Bilbao, where the nine cars flip and turn in a circular fashion, which the artist has described symbolised an almost cyclical change of the explosion he was alluding to.

In contrast to its installation counterpart, however, this effect is much more potent in Nine Cars, as the embedded meaning of the nine explosions is captured in the visual result of the gunpowder art. This literalises the theme of the work, as it seeks to discuss explosions via a detonation of gunpowder. The outcome is a piece that explores its chief concern both in content and form and is a marriage between tradition and modernity. Nine Cars draws from Taoist beliefs of the number nine representing creative and masculine elements of yang. It also alludes to the use of the number nine in the famous scroll by Southern Song Dynasty painter, Chen Rong, Nine Dragons. “The nine dragons in the scroll,” Cai once noted, “may also be interpreted as one entity experiencing nine transformations in shape, emotion, age, and wisdom.”1 Similarly, the nine vehicles in Nine Cars is an investigation into a series of explosions, and can even be read as perhaps just one car, as the artist follows its spinning motions. The work is also a strong example of the contradictions that populate Cai’s works. Although the artist explores mortality and human fragility, he chooses the symbol of a circle, which is often used to represent immortality and strength. Within this same symbol is also a latent sense of calm, and yet Cai injects disorder and confusion into the piece, as if to destabilise it from within.

The uncontrollable nature of explosives is one of the most captivating aspects of Cai’s oeuvre. Along with this is the artist’s ability to combine so dexterously traditional notions with modern ones; and to evoke the three-dimensional world despite his choice of a two-dimensional canvas. His expertise in restraining this medium, despite it being so erratic, is indicative of the artist’s talent; but to be able to restrain this medium, while also creating works that exude an ethereal kind of beauty is symbolic of Cai’s unparalleled mastery, solidifying his position at the forefront of contemporary Chinese art. 

1 “Octavio Zaya in Conversation with Cai Guo-Qiang,” in Dana Friis-Hansen, Octavio Zaya, and Serizawa Takashi, Cai Guo- Qiang Phaidon, 2002, p. 17 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG