Traversing Planets and Centuries:
The Gunpowder Alchemist
The 10,000 meter wall of light will form a line ofqi energy that will wake the Great Wall, which has been sleeping for thousands of years […] Something infinite can be combined with things that are limited and finite. It is said that the Great Wall is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon. By adding another 10,000 meters to the wall, extraterrestrial intelligence on faraway planets will be able to see it.
– Cai Guo Qiang
I’ve come from a background of alchemy and Taoism, and I’ve combined that with modern physics and a modern worldview. I know for example, that space could be totally engaged in a type of work that envelopes the audience. The work could play out in time; there could be a time element in there […] They represent our time as well.
– Cai Guo Qiang
It was dusk – 7:35 p.m. to be precise – on February 27, 1993. Some 40,000 spectators gathered, in biting wind and bitter cold, at the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) wall at the remote Jiayuguan Pass at the Westernmost end of the Great Wall of China. At Cai Guo-Qiang’s command, two fuses were lit, 10,000 metres in length, totalling 600,000 grams of gunpowder. Cai watched as the flame wound slowly into the barren, boundless dessert, undulating like a gentle dragon. It was as though the Great Wall, after a thousand years of slumber, had finally awoken, and was breathing life back into itself.
Monumental in scale, majestic in form and heroic in its historical associations, Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (2000, in 5 pieces) is an epochal encapsulation of Cai Guo-Qiang’s seminal 1993 gunpowder performance that visually added ten kilometres to the Great Wall. The most ambitious of Cai’s explosion events, the eponymous 1993 performance was the only one of his Projects for Extraterrestrials series realized in the artist’s native China, and to this day defines his larger-than-life oeuvre. Realized seven years after the event as what Cai called a “postproduction drawing,” the present gunpowder drawing is a regal, museum-quality summation of Cai’s repertoire of large-scale installations and site-specific projects that draw upon Eastern philosophy and global contemporary issues. Created shortly after Cai won the International Golden Lion award at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, the present work was commissioned specifically for the exhibition The Wall (2000) at Taiwan’s National Museum of History and is a particularly significant work that identifies the Great Wall as a symbol of separation and boundary whilst harnessing the gunpowder as a brilliant metaphor for destruction, cathartic creation and fusion between humanity, history and nature.
Born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Cai graduated with a BFA in stage design from the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1985. Right from the beginning, Cai’s art was concerned with a desire to utilize the power of natural forces. Initially, the artist laid oil paint on canvas and blasted it with an electric fan, shaping the movement of paint with wind. Cai then began experimenting with gunpowder in the early 1980s, lighting gunpowder with fuses directly onto his oil canvases. Cai went on to develop a singular process that sublimely balanced chance and control to create energetic and volatile compositions. Unlike his peers who made their names in the 1990s, such as Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping and Gu Wenda, etc., Cai did not graduate from any of the major art academies in China nor affiliate himself with the dialectics of the ’85 New Wave. Instead, Cai moved to Japan in 1986 – a country derivative of his homeland linguistically and culturally but far superior in terms of technological development – to hone the technical specifics of his hanabi (“gunpowder”) technique.
Cai stayed in Japan until 1995; during this period the artist rose to international prominence with his pivotal Projects for Extraterrestrials series that was widely covered by the media. Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, upon which the present drawing is modelled, is the largest and most iconic as well as the only one realized in the artist’s native China. For the work, Cai exploded a 10,000-metre trail of gunpowder from the Western-most end of the Great Wall into the Gobi Desert. The Metropolitan Museum’s description of the work reads: “In this ambitious pyrotechnic display, [Cai] has appropriated the Great Wall as a piece of Land Art, revitalizing one of China’s most enduring cultural icons by tapping into its perceived cosmic energy […] The initial explosion took fifteen minutes to travel the entire length of the line and was seen by forty thousand residents and tourists. For Cai, this collective effort also subverted the Great Wall’s ‘original practice and ideological function’” (MET website).
While Cai’s explosions are reminiscent of Land Art or Earth Art like that of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, Cai’s thinking is concerned primarily with the question of light – with fire as its fiercest and most fleeting form. Rather than Earth Art he resolved to create “Space Art” – art with light that could be viewed by aliens in distant galaxies. Cai’s motive was however not simply this strange dictum to create something to entertain creatures in space, but rather to “allow qi to circulate between the real and the virtual, like the breathing of the universe” (“To Dare to Accomplish Nothing,” Cai Guo-Qiang, Fondation Cartier and Thames & Hudson, 2000, pp. 117-135). Indeed, Cai’s singular aesthetic derives from an Eastern worldview of unity between man and nature. In a 1998 volume of the American journal Leonardo, Cai explained: “My basic belief is that man is the child of earth or Mother Nature or the universe (or whatever you believe represents the universe). From this perspective, our relationship with nature, or with the universe, is one of unity. People today often forget this simple and obvious concept”.
The present work was created in 2000, five years after Cai – by this time an internationally acclaimed artist and household name – moved from Japan to New York, and seven years after his seminal 1993 Great Wall explosion in Jiayuguan. Measuring 3 by 20 meters, the specially commissioned monumental piece was executed in the plaza in front of the National Museum of History in Taiwan and depicts the extended portion of the Great Wall after the 1993 performance as it would have been seen from distant space. After enacting the explosion, Cai carefully examined its structure and effect, added ten fireworks stations to the composition and concluded the project as a “postproduction drawing” of the 1993 event – describing the moment of explosion as a state of “primal chaos,” in which the “air” of the moment briefly linked two different times and spaces, the ephemeral flash of brilliance uniting the bounded with the boundless and the infinite.
In recreating the 1993 performance, this 2000 “postproduction drawing” evokes a time-space intersection that allows the viewer to re-witness the ephemerality of the original event, transcending boundaries of time, space, geography and history. This is in keeping with Cai’s entire oeuvre that reflects on important moments in history; as Cohn observes, Cai’s 1993 explosion “references major events of the time, notably the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Iron Curtain,” whereas his entire opus over the past decades “touches upon almost every major act of political violence of the 20th and early 21st centuries” (“The Art of War: Cai Guo-Qiang,” op.cit.). Prompting us to reflect on our complex relationship with the world and universe, Cai asks: “The explosions of gunpowder that have taken place on Earth have been mostly for war and environmental destruction […] How do extraterrestrials receive these human acts…[?]” (cited in Ibid.). Uniquely challenging, ambitious and singularly evocative, the present work stands as an elegant and superlative testimony to Cai’s ultimate personal and artistic objectives, that is: to “send out a different image of humans to the universe, which is not related to war or killing” (cited in Ibid.); and to seek a redemptive “fusion of humanity, history and nature” (Cai Guo-Qiang and You Jindong, "Painting with Gunpowder,” Leonardo 21.3, 1988, pp. 251-254).
In lieu of brush and pigment, Cai achieves the aforementioned magical alchemy of artistic, philosophical and historical elements with gunpowder and gunpowder alone. Achieving a sublime balance between chance and control, his explosions find rhythm and form in the midst of disorder, manifesting magnificent creation via destruction from which the silhouette of the Great Wall emerges - a symbol emblematic of China as well as of the rise and fall of dynasties over the course of history, "marking an end to the past era as the first step towards the new" (exh. cat. The Wall, Chen Yung-Yuan ed., Taipei National Museum of History, 2000, p. 260). As an artist who paints without painting, the sophistication, innovation and significance of Cai's gunpowder oeuvre rivals that of all his brush-wielding colleagues whilst forging a revolutionary new order for global artistic abstraction.