Famed for his fireworks displays, Cai Guo-Qiang has created work that is loud and chaotic. But a series of monumental gunpowder drawings, including a spectacular example in the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong (31 March), reveals another side of the artist.
Cai Guo-Qiang is now a member of the elite group of artists that transcends art world boundaries and is part of a much broader cultural consciousness. Since 2008, the year of his action-packed retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and his dramatic firework display – in his words, an “explosion event” – for the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony in his native China, Cai has been much in demand. Major exhibitions and explosion events have been staged everywhere from Doha to Los Angeles, São Paulo to Moscow. In 2016, film director Kevin MacDonald made a documentary feature about him, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, for Netflix. And last year, Cai became only the second living artist in two centuries to have an exhibition at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
CAI GUO-QIANG, PROJECT TO EXTEND THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA BY 10,000 METERS: PROJECT FOR EXTRATERRESTRIALS NO. 10, 2000, ESTIMATE HK$15,000,000—25,000,000. OFFERED IN THE CONTEMPORARY ART EVENING SALE IN HONG KONG ON 31 MARCH.
Over the years, Cai has developed a diverse and complex practice.
There are his theatrical sculptural installations, typified by Head On, 2006, where a pack of 99 life-size stuffed wolves run into a glass wall. There is his occasionally reprised Everything is Museum project, which questions museum methodologies and power. Then there are his gunpowder drawings, of which one, Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 2000, will be auctioned in the Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong (31 March). Arguably, these works most palpably weave together the rich threads of biography, art-historical references and science-infused wonder that comprise Cai’s art.
I sought an energy that would disrupt my art.
Cai was born in Quanzhou, south-east China, in 1957. His father was well-read and a respected traditional painter and calligrapher. In Sky Ladder, Cai notes that he himself was initially “timid and cautious” in his art. “My work was overly influenced by my father, following the same conventional pattern.”
He says he sought “an energy that would disrupt my art.” It would emerge from a feature of Quanzhou life. “In my hometown, every significant social occasion – weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home – is marked by the explosion of firecrackers,” Cai once stated. Also important in Quanzhou and to Cai was superstition and spirituality. As he once said: “I grew up in this environment, so even from a young age I was exploring a connection to this unseen power.”
DETAIL OF CAI GUO-QIANG'S PROJECT TO EXTEND THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA BY 10,000 METERS: PROJECT FOR EXTRATERRESTRIALS NO. 10, 2000, ESTIMATE HK$15,000,000—25,000,000. OFFERED IN THE CONTEMPORARY ART EVENING SALE IN HONG KONG ON 31 MARCH.
These two aspects would infuse the paintings he made as he broke free from his father’s traditionalism. Finding that throwing fireworks directly at canvases was too risky, he soon elected gunpowder as his medium, making traditional paintings on canvas before using them as a stage for brief incendiary violence. This process began in China, but as the country opened up in the 1980s and its citizens were freer to travel, Cai left for Japan. There, partly inspired by the minimalist language of the avant-garde Mono-ha (School of Things) movement, he honed his craft, gaining a clearer grasp of his materials and greater control over composition.
CAI GUO-QIANG. PHOTO © JEFF VESPA. COURTESY GETTYIMAGES/WIREIMAGE.
In 1989, enthused by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, he conceived a series called Project for Extraterrestrials, an attempt to make art for a fictional alien audience. He hoped these works would “send out a different image of humans to the universe, one that is not related to war or killing.” They consisted of gunpowder drawings and live firework pieces, which reached their apogee with the 1993 opus Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10. The idea came from the long-discredited notion that the Great Wall is the only human-made object visible from the moon. “By adding another 10,000 meters to the wall,” Cai speculated, “extraterrestrial intelligence on faraway planets will be able to see it.”
In my hometown, every significant social occasion is marked by the explosion of firecrackers. so even from a young age I was exploring a connection to this unseen power.
The project symbolically extended the wall with 10 kilometres of gunpowder fuses joined together. The winding form was punctuated by bags of gunpowder that would periodically make larger explosions as the fuse wound its way into the Gobi desert. The artist has revisited this event twice in drawings: in 1994, with the work Extension, and again in 2000, at the National Museum of History in Taiwan.
There, in the plaza in front of the museum, Cai created the work being offered at Sotheby’s. The drawing is twenty metres wide and three metres high. Its technique is much the same as the one he set out in Japan during the 1980s, expanded to a monumental scale: stencils are laid on the paper and punctuated by fuses taped to the surface, then showered in gunpowder; the surface is covered with cardboard and weighted down with stones to reduce the oxygen flow and risk of a full-blown fire; and then the fuse is lit.
First Look: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Extraterrestrial Vision
Cai had not made a two-dimensional work for many years and noted at the time: “You could say I’m returning to painting and shifting toward something more akin to representational painting.” Indeed, these huge works resemble wide-screen ink paintings by traditional Chinese painters, such as Cai’s father. Yet they also evoke modern Western art: the process art of post-minimalism in New York (where Cai has lived for more than twenty years) and its precursor, action painting.
Watch Cai at work on the drawings, and comparisons to Jackson Pollock’s dances around floor-based canvases are inevitable. It is instructive to compare Pollock’s statement, “I am nature,” to Cai’s philosophy, expressed as early as 1988, that “human beings are the children of our mother earth or nature, or the universe (or whatever one prefers to refer to which has cosmic significance), and in that sense we are all one with nature or the universe.”
CAI GUO-QIANG, PROJECT TO EXTEND THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA BY 10,000 METERS: PROJECT FOR EXTRATERRESTRIALS NO. 10, ON-SITE PHOTOGRAPHY, 27 FEBRUARY 1993.
If Cai’s pyrotechnical performances embody what he has described as “a sense of momentary chaos [that] distorts time, space, one’s sense of existence and of those around you,” then the drawings not only evoke that chaos but fix it temporally, permitting a more intimate engagement between artwork and viewer. In this sense, they are arguably the most satisfying element of Cai’s practice.
Ben Luke is a regular contributor to Sotheby’s magazine.