Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong

Cai Guo-Qiang B. 1957
B. 1957
signed in pinyin and Chinese, titled and dated 2000.1.17
gunpowder and ink on paper (in 5 pieces)
each piece approx 304 by 402cm.; 119 3/4 by 158 1/4 in.
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Eslite Gallery, Taiwan
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Wall, National Museum of History, Taipei, 2000


National Museum of History, Wall, Taipei, 2000

Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Valencia, Spain, Cai Guo-Qiang, 2005

Catalogue Note

Starting from Jiayuguan the western end of the Great Wall of China, a gunpowder fuse will be laid for 10,000 meters through the desert. At dusk the gunpowder fuse will be lit at Jiayuguan, creating a momentary wall of fire and light running the open desert. The duration of the explosion will be 100 seconds.

The 10,000 meter wall of light will form a line of qi energy that will wake the Great Wall, which has been sleeping for thousands of years. The power of the old wall will become one with the momentary force. Something infinite can be combined with things that re 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.[1]

These are the words in which Cai Guo-Qiang proposed the project that would begin his trajectory toward becoming an artist of overwhelming international significance. The idea seems remarkably, counterintuitively simple: Anyone familiar with Chinese history and geography understands that the Great Wall ends at Jiayuguan, Gansu province. West of the wall was historically a barbarian area, beyond the pale of Chinese civilization. Why then, should an artist of such monumental ambition not propose a project like the one that Cai Guo-Qiang realized on February 27, 1993, at 7:35 p.m. using 600 kg of gunpowder and two ten-kilometer long fuses?

This work, a monumental three-by-twenty meter "gunpowder painting" reflects and records the explosion event for which it is named. Realized seven years after the event itself, the present work is a regal, museum-quality summation of the project for which its maker is perhaps best known. While this sprawling screen is more than capable of standing alone as a two-dimensional composition - the rhythms and volumes of the wall's path are at once rigidly geographical and topographical, and yet evocatively abstract - one can only appreciate its true significance in the context of the event from which it derives. And to appreciate this event, which transpired far in the western Chinese hinterland in the early part of the decade that would see China finally shed the burden of a history that gave way to the Great Wall itself, one must in turn understand the path traveled by the artist, the twists and turns in his thought and practice which look not unlike the wanderings of his fire atop the mountains.

First things first: Cai Guo-Qiang is arguably the most important artist to have emerged from China in the last two decades. His curriculum vitae spans the globe and includes many of its most significant museums, from the Centre Georges Pompidou to the Shanghai Art Museum to the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His publishing history includes major monographs in languages European and Asian alike. His projects have been executed in conjunction with political milestones including the Shanghai APEC Summit in 2001 and the Washington D.C. Kennedy Center Festival of China in 2005. In the auspicious year of 2008, this importance will only swell, as two major events in this artist's career come to fruition: a sprawling mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games, which he will visually mastermind. But how did the son of a Communist party literati painter in the quiet town of Quanzhou, Fujian province, come so far so fast -

Cai's path to such significance has not been typical, but necessary. Unlike his peers in the generation who made their names abroad in the 1990s - Xu Bing, Huang Yong Ping, and Wenda Guo-Cai did not graduate from either of the major art academies, did not participate significantly in the domestic dialectic of the '85 Art New Wave or the buildup to the China/Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Gallery in 1989. In a way, Cai was always too material and yet too spiritual for such petty dalliances. He opted to move to Japan in 1986 to pursue an artistic career after finishing his training in stage design at the Shanghai Academy of Drama. It was this move - to a country far superior to his homeland in terms of technological development, but derivative of it linguistically and culturally - that Cai began to rethink his life and envision his future.

In Cai Guo-Qiang's earliest published essay, entitled "On the Use of Light in Art," he discusses how "after the Second World War, Europe and America, in order to promote their interests, concentrated their powers on economic construction. As material civilization progressed, human relations deteriorated, as people began to feel spiritual angst and hesitation, looking for a way out. Artists, likewise, sought out many different ways of expressing the world as they felt it, with schools arising in succession, as the use of light in artworks became ever more bold, ever more distinctive."[2]

Indeed Cai's own early thinking was entirely concerned with this question of light. It was the sole issue that occupied his early meditations on the sort of artist he wished to become. Little surprise then, that he would eventually turn to a practice so integrally connected with fire and explosion - the fiercest and most fleeting form of light. Unsatisfied with the human scale of art and artistic ambition in a normal sense Cai resolved to create not "earth art" like that of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer to whom he is often compared, but "space art," to be viewed by aliens in distant galaxies. Cai's motive was however not simply this strange dictum to create something to entertain the creatures in space, but rather to "allow qi to circulate between the real and the virtual, like the breathing of the universe."[3]

Discussing the cosmology of Cai's art in a catalogue essay for his solo show at the Fondation Cartier in 2001, curator Fei Dawei offered a compelling summation of Cai's relationship to nature. In Cai's art, wrote Fei Dawei, "Nature is not an exterior world that opposes humankind, but a process in which the human being participates. Nature, in its entirety does not vary quantitatively but it can spread through an unlimited number of forms. Artistic creation neither adds nor removes anything from nature. It simply puts peaceful eternity into question with the obvious disorder of the world of appearances."[4]

The Project for the Extraterrestrials series, like much of Cai's playfully titled work, is intricately numbered. Number 0 in the series was actually not an explosion event, but a proposal lease an island territory and leave it empty, waiting for a message from beyond. Number 1 involved exploding a Mongolian yurt in full daylight on the shores of the Tama River in Tokyo; this was Cai's first true explosion event, in November 1989, just a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But perhaps the most famous early Project for the Extraterrestrials was Number 3, titled 45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet. This explosion, commissioned for the exhibition Chine demain pour Hier in Pourrières, France and arguably the first significant international exhibition of contemporary Chinese art abroad after Tian'anmen, and involved a series of explosions in an empty field near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. The explosion was later featured on the cover of British critic Perry Anderson's The Origins of Postmodernity. As Cai wrote of the project, "This event serves as a reminder that the earth we have cultivated from the beginning of human existence can be destroyed in a matter of seconds." The influential Japanese critic Shiba Chigeo attended this performance and wrote afterwards in the Asahi Shimbun an article titled "The Sparks of Sainte-Victoire," arguing that Chinese artists and Cai in particular, had an unprecedented opportunity to re-envision artistic practice.

It was arguably here that Cai's Japanese reputation began to gather steam. In the following four years, museums and arts organizations all over the country would look to collaborate with him, from Nagoya to Setagaya to Fukuoka and back to Tokyo. One of the most interesting of these was P3 Art and Environment, a Tokyo-based art organization founded and directed by the curator Serizawa Takashi. P3 Art and Environment was an extremely innovative organization for its moment, committed to exploring the issues of art's relationship with the earth that then came to seem so pressing. It was also willing to take risks, working with a then unknown artist first to realize the major project Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects in January 1991. The Project for Projects consisted of seven multi-panel screens resulting from contained explosions at a fireworks factory in Ibaragi, Japan and depicting all of Cai's unrealized Project for the Extraterrestrials proposals up to that point. This cycle includes classics such as Cai's Proposal to Rebuild the Berlin Wall, conceived in the same string of thought that led to the present work but for obvious reasons never made reality, and Bigfoot's Footprints whereby a series of gunpowder footprints was to traverse an international border. It also includes a haunting work, not part of the Project for the Extraterrestrials series, entitled The Vague Border at the Edge of Time/Space in which the artist exploded outlines in gunpowder corresponding to where his shadow fell over the sheets. Realized somewhat ironically during the explosions of the first Persian Gulf War, these ambitious scrolls are the closest thing the present work can claim to a predecessor, realized nearly ten years earlier.

This cycle would set the stage for Cai's second collaboration with P3 Art and Environment: Project - to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters. Indeed, Primeval Fireball and the present work were conceived together, and the exhibition which first showcased that gunpowder scroll cycle also showed Cai's proposal for his Project to Extend the Great Wall. This project stands as by far the most ambitious and the largest in scale of Cai's many explosion events, at a full ten kilometers long. It is also the only of this long series of extraterrestrial projects to be realized in Cai's native China. In addition to its conceptual ambition, the project required an extraordinary amount of logistical coordination and political maneuvering in order to be realized. Cai and the P3 team met the deputy mayor of the city of Jiayuguan one year in advance of the project to ask for his support. They enlisted the Fireworks Display Factory of Beijing Municipality and the China Jiayuguan International Travel Service as collaborators. A team of fifty Japanese assistants and countless local Chinese came to their aid.

Serizawa has recounted the process of preparing for this massive explosion as follows:

On the day of the event we set out for the desert in the early morning. Different teams were given different tasks; they were lined up along the site like Chinese engineering brigades, who each specialize in one detail of a complicated construction. One team cleared the path and laid out the gunpowder fuses; another joined the separate pieces up to create one long fuse; a third attached small bags of gunpowder onto the fuse at 3-metre intervals to create periodic, larger explosions as the burning fuse went past; a fourth placed heavy stones on the fuse to keep it from blowing away; and yet another made the final check on all the procedures to ensure that everything was in place.

By evening, all the wok was finally completed. Along with about forty thousand audience members, I waited for Cai standing on a hill in the piercing cold wind, to light the fuse at the barrier station. Just before dusk, the fuse was ignited, accompanied by loud cheers. It burnt at about 14 metres per second, much more slowly than Cai's previous fuses; the space was so vast that the fire didn't have the compressed, explosive feeling usual in Cai's work. Instead, it slithered along the ground with dignity, like a gentle dragon. As the small bags of gunpowder exploded at intervals they created the effect of pulses of lightning. The fire ran across the desert as if it were a living thing, taking a full fifteen minutes to reach the end of the fuse before disappearing into the snowy mountains.[5]

In many ways, this was the project that cemented Cai's growing reputation in Japan and internationally, and later served as a basis for re-inserting him into the domestic Chinese conversation. (The work was included, for example, in the First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002, an exhibition which recounted the developments of the 1990s, seen as a deconstruction of the meaning of this great national symbol.) In 1994, the Yomiuri Shimbun would title its annual review of the Japanese art scene for with these haunting words: "The Year in Art: Euro-America in Decline, Cai Guo-Qiang Active." The following year, Cai would move to New York to take up a residency at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and beginning a new phase of his life and work, a period in which he would emerge as one of the most significant artists in the world, ultimately leading him back to China and particularly Beijing. Surely, Cai's ability to realize so substantial a project on so massive a scale, and so early on in his career contributed to these later developments.

The present work was realized in 2000, five years into Cai's sojourn in New York. It is in this way a manifestation of Cai's rethinking of the project some seven years after it was executed, from the remove of another continent and shortly before the events of September 11, 2001 would imbue his explosions with yet another layer of meaning. This turn-of-the-millennium moment was an extremely productive one for Cai, who, finally settled into his new North American home was returning to a number of earlier projects, memorializing them in sketches and gunpowder paintings. This screen was realized on a scale never before employed in Cai's two-dimensional work, and is thus appropriate to the majesty of the real-life explosion that it depicts.

Cai had set his paintings aside for some years, returning to them only around the time that the present work was executed. In a recent interview with curator and critic Serizawa Takashi in the bilingual Japanese art magazine ArtIt, Cai talked of his return to paper and canvas, saying that, "In China, and for a while after moving to Japan, I was producing two-dimensional works that involved exploding gunpowder on paper and canvas, and looked much like abstract paintings. But from around the time I first showed Primeval Fireball, things started to change. The plans I drew for my outdoor gunpowder projects became the focus. And recently that's started to change a little again. You could say I'm returning to painting and shifting toward something more akin to representational painting."[6]

The relationship between Cai's "explosion events" as they have come to be called and his plastic output has long been a topic of debate among commentators and critics. The New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote of Cai's practice in 2003 that, "He produces a fair number of 'burn' drawings. They remain important to him, he says, as 'an extension of my childhood dream of being a painter.' They are also the most collectible and exhibitable works by an artist who for the most part trafficks in evanescent materials." [7] In Cotter's understanding, as in that of many critics, the gunpowder works are secondary to the temporal events themselves. And yet the connection between these two major strands in Cai's oeuvre is not so simple as it appears at first. The notion of  "painting with gunpowder" also surfaces extremely early on in his career - earlier, even, than his first explosion event. In fact, in the first English language text that Cai would publish under his own name - a short treatise in the American art journal Leonardo in 1988 - Cai laid out a manifesto for this new form of painting. He wrote:

My basic idea is 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. While this seems a simple and obvious concept, it is one that modern people tend to forget. This is one reason I choose to wield natural materials in my paintings.

Additionally, individual power or capability is limited, and individual lives are short and weak compared to nature, which is strong and limitless. Therefore I borrow power from nature by using the 'skin' of the earth (soil) and other natural materials that are alive as we are alive, and I use this power to create effects that seem to me wondrous. I seek through my paintings a oneness of work self and nature as well as a fusion of humanity, history and nature. [8]


This passage - while originally intended to describe Cai's painterly practice - also serves as a preliminary grounding in the rationale behind the explosion events he would begin to stage upon moving to Japan and throughout his career. In this way, it shows how Cai's painting and performance intermingle, subverting the idea that the gunpowder drawings are simply "sketches" for or about the transient events with which they are connected. Instead, both aim to employ materials from nature to engage with cosmic realities.

It is rare that a brilliant fleeting moment such as the one created by Cai in his Project to Extend the Great Wall by 10,000 Meters can be immortalized in a manner befitting its unique grandeur and spectacle, but that is what Cai has done here, in this uniquely challenging, ambitious, and evocative work.

[1] Cai Guo-Qiang, project statment for Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for the Extraterrestrials No. 10, printed in the catalogue for China's New Art: Post-1989, Hanart TZ Gallery, 1993.

[2] Cai Guo-Qiang, "An Important Tactic for Manifesting the Artist's Idea: A preliminary exploration into the use of 'light' in expressing the substance of an artwork," Art Theory 1986.7, pp. 97-99.

[3] Cai Guo-Qiang, "To Dare to Accomplish Nothing," Interview with Fei Dawei, Cai Guo-Qiang (exh. cat.), Fondation Cartier and Thames & Hudson, 2000, pp. 117-135.

[4] "Amateur Recklessness: On the Work of Cai Guo-Qiang," Fei Dawei, Cai Guo-Qiang (exh. cat.), Fondation Cartier and Thames & Hudson, 2000, pp. 7-14.

[5] Serizawa Takashi, "Going Beyond the Wall: Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10," in Cai Guo-Qiang, Phaidon, 2002, pp. 107-110.

[6] "Like a Small Child Building Firecrackers," Interview with Serizawa Takashi, ArtIt 4.2, Spring-Summer 2006, pp. 38-40

[7] Holland Cotter, "Public Art: Both Violent and Gorgeous" in The New York Times, section 2, (Sunday, September 14, 2003), pp. 1,33.

[8] Cai Guo-Qiang and You Jindong, "Painting with Gunpowder," Leonardo 21.3, 1988, pp. 251-254.

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong