"The figures of mushroom clouds are monumental and beautiful. They are the visual creation that symbolizes this century, overwhelming artistic creation. The clouds will continue to have a powerful effect on people of subsequent centuries."[i] Thus Cai Guo-Qiang described the motif that became the subject of the first important series of works he produced following his 1995 relocation from Japan to the United States: The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century.
The images from The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century are among Cai Guo-Qiang's most profound and memorable, frequently reproduced and important for a full understanding of the artist's oeuvre. They tie thematically to an earlier project related to the atomic bomb, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, produced in Hiroshima in 1994, and they introduce an increasingly explicit focus on world power struggles. In addition, this period is significant for the evolution of Cai's gunpowder "paintings" from their role primarily as plans and records of pyrotechnic events to their current status as major independent works of art.
The best-known images from The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century are the group of photographs dating to February through April 1996 and depicting Cai standing in the foreground, a cloud of smoke rising from his outstretched hand. He produced the cloud through the most minimal of means, burning a pinch of gunpowder so that the smoke arises from a small cardboard tube—the latter taken from a roll of facsimile machine paper. In each Century with Mushroom Clouds photograph Cai faces a location of historical and/or artistic significance: a nuclear test site in Nevada, different sites with a view of Manhattan including of the Twin Towers, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) in Utah, and Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70) in Nevada. In addition to the widely published photographs, Cai also drew a group of quick pen sketches showing him releasing the "mushroom" cloud before key world monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Red Square and Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, London's Tower Bridge, the Taj Mahal, and views of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square. He published these sketches on the faces of playing cards in a pack called Mushroom Poker 2000. Tiananmen Square is a site he deemed important enough for a more major work of art.
The Century with Mushroom Clouds - Tienanmen Square: Project for the 20th Century (Lot 1005) is a gunpowder painting created during the same year as the photographs, 1996.[ii] Its lower half is occupied by an ink sketch of Cai releasing a cloud while standing in Tiananmen Square, looking over the many receding courtyards and roofs of the adjacent Forbidden City. Smoke leads from the artist's hand upwards to join with the base of a glorious blossoming mushroom cloud, the latter rendered via a masterfully controlled burn of explosive and flammable materials—Cai's signature medium.
Having lived in Japan from 1986 to 1995, Cai Guo-Qiang was cognizant of the atomic bomb's devastating power. In October 1994, not long before emigrating to the United States, he created a pyrotechnic event in Hiroshima, the first of the two Japanese cities to be devastated by nuclear bombs in 1945. For this work, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, he floated a black mushroom cloud composed of 114 helium balloons over Hiroshima Central Park near the A-Bomb Dome and ignited fuses strung between the balloons. The work was intended to both acknowledge history and encourage healing. During his nine-year Japan sojourn Cai had created many works concerned with healing. Some referenced fengshui or traditional medicine, for example Universal Design: Feng Shui Project for Mito: Chang Sheng (1994) and Calendar of Life (1994); some were celebratory: Project for Heiankyō 1,200th Anniversary: Celebration from Chang'an (1994) burned twelve thousand liters of sake in observation of Kyoto's twelve hundredth anniversary. Others, particularly the long series of Projects for Extraterrestrials, investigated broad issues centered on the relationship between humankind and the universe. (It was hoped that the light emitted by The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, mentioned above, would be visible from outer space.) In recognition of Cai Guo-Qiang's consistent expression of a wish for peace for all humankind, in 2007 the Hiroshima City Culture Foundation awarded him the seventh Hiroshima Art Prize.
The thinking behind The Century with Mushroom Clouds is complex, and marks a new direction for the artist following his relocation to New York. At its core this work is about displays of power. Cai has compared the atomic bomb to the Great Wall of China, noting that once the bomb had been deployed to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was no longer necessary to use it: the fear its existence aroused was sufficient deterrent. As Cai remarked "In a sense the mushroom cloud became increasingly conceptual, rather than real, as time went on."[iii] He continued: "It becomes like the Great Wall of China because, practically speaking, the Wall doesn't really keep the enemy out. . . . . But strategically and politically it's extremely important to have this thing there. Displaying power, imposing power, is extremely important."[iv] Both the Great Wall and the atomic bomb project might, resources and determination unequaled at the times of their creation. Cai's increasing fascination with world power struggles is revealed in numerous works from the later 1990s onward. Examples include Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan (1996), which hints at contemporary Asian power incursions into the West; Inopportune: Stage One (2004), an installation of cars and lights alluding to car bombs; Transparent Monument (2006), which references 9/11; and an ongoing series of museums he establishes at diverse, generally unorthodox sites to destabilize the entrenched art world power system, Everything Is Museum.
The mushroom cloud in The Century with Mushroom Clouds - Tienanmen Square: Project for the 20th Century strongly resembles a lingzhi, a Chinese fungus symbolizing longevity and revered over two millennia for its medicinal properties. This is by no means accidental: on the backs of all the playing cards in Cai's Mushroom Poker set is a lingzhi superimposed over a Chinese medicine prescription. The scrip reads, "nutritious and tonic. Activates immunity and retains functional balance of the human body." Thus, as depicted on the playing cards, the literal flipside of the most awful destructive tool devised by humans is a healing element drawn from nature. A deterrent artfully wielded may or may not lead to peace, but Cai Guo-Qiang has long understood that destruction may be a necessary precedent for creation. It is literally his modus operandi, using fire and explosions to produce works of art, but he also recognized this in the title of a 1998 pyrotechnic event, No Destruction, No Construction, in which he sent explosions along fuses laid throughout the newly built Taiwan Museum of Art in Taipei. Gunpowder explosions underscore the power of cosmic forces, and gunpowder events provide a brief link between humankind and the vast universe. Impermanence is a recurring sub-theme within Cai's oeuvre, which locates human activity within the sphere of cosmic cycles.
Cai Guo-Qiang first combined gunpowder with painting in the mid-1980s, when he burned gunpowder on the surface of painted canvas, juxtaposing the controlled activity of painting with the uncontrollable force of fire, highlighting the dichotomy between humankind and cosmic forces, while bringing them into harmonious conjunction in a work of art. He subsequently developed a technique for "drawing" or "painting" on paper using gunpowder combined with flammable herbs to produce varying shades, and has made gunpowder sketches as an integral part of his proposals for major explosive events. Later, as his technique became more sophisticated, he created major gunpowder paintings in conjunction with explosive events. The Century with Mushroom Clouds - Tienanmen Square: Project for the 20th Century is a step beyond that, based on a pyrotechnic event the artist conceptualized but never executed. As a highly controlled site of great political significance, Tiananmen Square is much too sensitive to allow the execution of such a work of art: Cai's mushroom cloud can only be imagined and represented in a work of art. Over many decades Tiananmen Square has witnessed extremes of both violence and of celebration (including the government's June 1989 massacre of peaceful protesters, which Cai referenced in his first pyrotechnic event). It is therefore most fitting that he unites in a single painting, The Century with Mushroom Clouds - Tienanmen Square: Project for the 20th Century, both the destructive violence of the atomic bomb—rendered via conflagration—and the peaceful attitude of the solitary human figure—rendered via the long-lived medium of ink—standing before the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen. An individual may hope to have the power to command peace.
[i] Cai Guo Qiang: Project for 20th Century: The Century with Mushroom Clouds Playing Cards, Mushroom Poker 2000.
[ii] The title retains the artist's spelling, "Tienanmen Square," as inscribed on the painting.
[iii] "Octavio Zaya in Conversation with Cai Guo-Qiang," in Cai Guo-Qiang, Octavio Zaya, Dana Friis-Hansen, et al. Cai Guo-Qiang (London and New York: Phaidon, 2002), p. 22.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 22, 25.
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