Leipzig, Museum fur bildende Kunste, Painting without Painting, 2002
Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Cai Guo-Qiang:Fireworks, Valencia, 2005, p. 181, illustrated in colour
Contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has made a long career of mining the collective cultural memory of the world—and the vast universe beyond—for subject matter that ultimately links otherwise discordant geographies, spaces and images together in his poetic and explosive works. Whether with gunpowder, clay, faux fur, excavated boats or shiny new cars, Cai weaves a deep philosophical narrative into the diverse materials he has selected to draw direct parallels between his native China and the world beyond. Many of the artist's most important works were included in a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2008 titled "I Want to Believe" that is now traveling around the world, much like Cai Guo-Qiang's ever-extending aesthetic reach and vision.
The work available in this sale is titled Project for Museum der bildenden Kunste Leipzig - Drawing for Ascending and was made for an exhibition called "Painting Without Painting" at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany in 2002. It depicts a ladder rising into the sky, with several angels flying immediately to its left and right. It is a prime example of Cai's eponymous "gunpowder drawings," a style that the artist has perfected utilizing gun powder laid down on Japanese paper which is exploded to permanently etch a given image into the paper as the burnt after-effects of a performative burst of flame.
The work most obviously references the Judeo-Christian story of Jacob's Ladder, perhaps one of the most well-known tales from the Holy Bible. Indeed, Genesis Chapter 28, Verse 14 reads: "And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." Although Cai's choice to use this image might at first seem to be an unusual one for an artist from a strongly Buddhist region of the world to make, when reading this verse, it quickly becomes apparent that it fits into Cai's overall project to unite myriad cultures and regions. From a formal perspective, Cai's use of gunpowder to exact the work also melds well with the reference to dust in the Genesis passage, for the burnt lines on the work's face radiate an ephemeral quality, as if the image could disappear at any moment.
In addition, the image of a ladder rising into the heavens is also found in Chinese culture. Known as a Sky Ladder, there are many historic narratives in China that speak of a great ladder that rises into the sky, allowing humans, gods and angels to come and go between each other's worlds. Indeed, cultures around the globe have similar stories of a ladder, a great tree or a mountain acting as a conduit between the mundane world and the realm of the gods above. It is a universal motif and myth, making it the perfect subject matter for Cai Guo-Qiang to address. Further, there is a specific tale of Chinese alchemists using 7 stars in the universe beyond to create a ladder to heaven, and when thinking of Cai as a modern-day alchemist using gunpowder and fire to create his works of art, we can begin to draw parallels between history and the here and now.
Further, the presence of Christian missionaries in China has a long and deep history. The first to arrive were Catholic Jesuits in the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644); after the Opium Wars of 1840-42, hundreds of missionaries poured into China from Europe and North America alike, culminating in thousands of mostly Protestant missionaries in the country in the first half of the 20th-century. This latter group, numbering at least 6,000 strong, used propagandistic posters to attempt to convert Chinese nationals to Christianity, and an extant poster from that era depicts a great ladder reaching into the heavens, promising absolution of sins for those that climb its rungs. Although it is unlikely that Cai saw this exact poster, it does show that even in the early 20th-century, the iconography of the ladder as a path to heaven was a shared visual trope between the West and China.
Finally, looking to the realm of science, a field that Cai is no stranger to thanks to his long research on gunpowder and fireworks, it is useful to note that the term Jacob's Ladder refers to the easily-made apparatus of two wires in a V-formation that, once a strong jolt of electricity is added, sends a pulsing spark, often with a loud cracking noise, up and between the two pieces of wire. This simple technology was used in many Frankenstein movies, and Cai's symbolic use of the Biblical Jacob's Ladder here takes on further meaning when we realize that it too was created with a loud explosive crack. Another element of the work that nods to Cai's interest in science is the coiled form to the lower right of the ladder, a common image the artist uses to depict a black hole, a region of space whose gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape its force, including light. By placing his Jacob's Ladder and attendant cherubim above the churning black hole below, Cai creates a great tension between the realms of theology and science, life and death, and indeed heaven and earth.
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