Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong

Cai Guo-Qiang B. 1957
B. 1957

the box signed, titled in Chinese and dated 1998, the sketches variously inscribed and dated

ink on paper
each sketch approx 33.4 by 48.2cm; 13 1/4 by 19in.
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Eslite Gallery, Taiwan
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner.

Catalogue Note

Cai Guo-Qiang's artistic practice can be read as a conversation between temporally bound events and spatially bound forms. His "gunpowder paintings" originated precisely as that-paintings-before giving rise to his trademark series of "explosion events" after his move to Japan in the late 1980s. For Cai, the canvas and the sheet of paper are spaces on which to work through concepts, often as a way of resolving or simply exploring the visual and metaphysical ideas that underlie his larger designs.


This exquisite set of fifty-two drawings details nearly all of the artist's major projects during the critical decade of his career between 1988 and 1998. From his first realized Project for Extraterrestrials in 1991 to the Ark of Genghis Khan that made his name in the Hugo Boss prize show at the Guggenheim SoHo shortly after he arrived New York in 1996, the full range of Cai's output is at once recorded and memorialized in ink on these simple sheets of rice paper.


The decade between 1988 and 1998 was an extraordinarily productive period for Cai, seeing his practice gain speed, ambition, and focus as his sojourn in Japan ended with his migration to New York in 1995. As the critic Fei Dawei wrote, "In the nineties, Cai Guo-Qiang's creativity entered its peak. Few artists are comparable to him in terms of the quantity and scale of his artistic output. However, his greatest merit is in his ability to find, within the artistic context of that time, an original approach that holds as much importance in the development of the East-West cultural dialogue as it does in broadening the concept of contemporary art-the artist places both of these issues at the heart of his work."[1]


The series for which Cai is perhaps best known¿his Projects for Extraterrestrials¿is documented here fastidiously. Two sketches depict Cai's plan for what was later labeled Earth SETI Base: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 0, an unrealized proposal to "take out a lease...on a terrain for 100 to 1,000 years on a small island, visible from a mainland city." If strange markings arose on this piece of land, the mainland residents "would have to determine whether it is from an extraterrestial or a prank of human origin. If it is the latter the message will be removed." This conceptual query posed to the viewer is in fact the starting point for the entirety of the Projects for Extraterrestrials series, in which grandiose events are staged to entertain viewers on distant planets. These sketches provide the only known documentation of that proposal, and have been used to illustrate it in numerous catalogues. Other Projects for Extraterrestrials are included in these sketches as well, notably No. 3, entitled 45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet, realized for the exhibition Chine demain pour Hier near Aix-en-Provence in 1990.


Cai's other, perhaps more personal series of explosion events is entitled The Century with Mushroom Clouds, in which the artist explodes small hand-held gunpowder casks to form floating mushroom clouds before locations that have significant places in the history of nuclear weaponry. Cai believes in the mushroom cloud as a distinctly twentieth-century phenomenon, since it did not exist before, and in light of computer testing for nuclear arms now prevalent, will be rarely seen in the twenty-first century. "Like all things obsolete," he once mused, "the mushroom cloud will become art." The series The Century with Mushroom Clouds is extensively documented in this set of sketches, with a total of eight drawings depicting proposals both realized and fantastical. In addition to his detonations in the Nevada desert and before the Manhattan skyline, Cai proposed mushroom clouds for Paris, Beijing, and Moscow (two sketches each), in addition to London and the site of the Taj Mahal (one sketch each). Just as Cai's iconic photographs mythologize his realized mushroom cloud projects, these sketched flights of bizarrely lyrical fancy show the extent of the artist's ambition for this series, with which he intended to explode major cities.


Of course not all of Cai Guo-Qiang's projects are so massive in scale or so fleeting in nature. Included in this set are a number of sketches outlining the major installation works with which he cultivated a reputation as an artistic innovator in the context of the traditional museum. "Cultural Melting Bath" for example, presented for Cai's first U.S. solo show at the Queens Museum of Art in 1997, was to bring people of different ethnic origins together in a hot tub full of Chinese medicinal teas, thus bearing out the American cliché of New York as a "melting pot." The room was in turn filled with Taihu stones to channel the qi necessary to make the hot-tub encounters auspicious. This installation is represented here by two sketches. His performance/installation for the 1995 Venice Biennale Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot is similarly represented, as is a project The Foolish Man who Tried to Move the Mountain for the canceled contemporary portion of the Guggenheim's China: 5000 Years exhibition in 1998.


Perhaps most stirring however are those proposals by Cai that are so giant and grandiose that they could only exist on paper. In one sketch, Cai proposes mounting a translucent pyramid atop Mount Fuji which would be inflated by the hot air coming from deep inside the mountain. In another, he suggests constructing a massive cloud 50 by 90 by 70 meters atop a mountain out of perforated metal such that visitors could climb to its top. In suggestions like these-which register somewhere between the poetic and the absurd-we see the true genius of an artist who has spent his career altering our perceptions of the relationship between man and his environment.


In addition to the traces of compositional and conceptual genius that each sketch in this sprawling set reveal, the present work is significant for its documentary value, preserving and presenting the explorations and discoveries of an artist who can be glimpsed, but never contained.



[1] Fei Dawei, "Amateur Recklessness: On the Work of Cai Guo-Qiang," Cai Guo-Qiang, Fondation Cartier and Thames & Hudson, 2000, p. 9.

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong