Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe, Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York, 2008, p. 123
Cai Guo-Qiang is among the best-known Chinese artists of the moment, and his practice rests on two discrete principles which both gain full expression in the present work: materially, the primacy of explosive elements; and methodologically, the importance of realizing projects in cities scattered liberally around the globe.
"Life Beneath the Shadow" is the name of an exhibition that Cai realized for the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2005. Working with the city's Fruitmarket Gallery, he realized a commission from Scotland's National Portrait Gallery to create gunpowder likenesses of twelve famous Scots. Among these subjects were the author Arthur Conan Doyle and a number of other famous clairvoyants and visionaries. When this series was exhibited, with nine paintings shown in the Fruitmarket Gallery and another three in the National Portrait Gallery, the images were paired with joss dolls, evocative of the region's long associations with the occult. Cai Guo-Qiang's Life Beneath the Shadow: Michael Scott (Lot 1008) is from this very series. The legend goes that Michael Scott was a wizard who staged regular encounters with the Devil and posed for him "impossible" scenarios, with the objective of shaming him when he was unable to achieve Scott's requests. Toward the end of his life, having seen the tortures the Devil prepared for him in vengeance, he renounced his allegiance with Hell and redirected his sight to God. Upon his death, he was whisked to the gates of Heaven.
Cai's use of gunpowder to create figurative portraits dates back to his earliest experiments with the medium in the mid-1980s, as in pieces such as his 1985/89 Self-Portrait: A Subjugated Soul. However, as Cai began to use explosives more frequently for his "explosion events" and less as a material for basic painting, such works became rarer. Indeed it has only been in the last five to seven years that he has seriously revisited the possibility of painting objects and people using gunpowder, and the Life Beneath the Shadow series represented for him a key turning point back toward this earlier direction in his practice. As Cai wrote very early on in his career, in a 1988 essay titled "Painting with Gunpowder": "My basic idea is that human beings are the children of our mother earth or nature, or the universe . . . 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."
Little did the young Cai Guo-Qiang know that two decades later he would be a globe-trotting artist, frequently commissioned by cities around the globe to complete projects of stunning scale and complexity. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has written of Cai as an artist distinctly of this global moment, where the whole world becomes the studio. This particular project, in which Cai went on-site in Scotland to engage, from a global perspective, with a local history and mythology, is particularly representative of his work in the late 1990's and early 2000's, much of which was concerned with questions of cultural specificity and identity.
On a more formal level, Cai Guo-Qiang's return to figuration through gunpowder was not temporary. As recently as in the new works he completed for his major retrospective "Hanging Out in the Museum" at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2009, Cai returned to his unique medium's special capacity for realistic depiction with an extended portrait of a dancer. But this Edinburgh cycle is unique in his work for being a group of portraits. Certainly, groups of figures and objects appear elsewhere in Cai's oeuvre—take for example the nine cars which make up Inopportune: Stage One, or the writhing tigers and wolves from some of his best-known installations. Nowhere else in Cai's vast output, however, do we see a grouping of historical portraits on this scale or at this level of factual detail. Of course, to call them truly figurative would also be an exaggeration: these works are as gestural as they are representative, rendering historical figures with recourse to their particular quirks, stories, and flourishes. While the present example is nearly unique in being so overtly humanoid, other images from the series devolve and sublimate into forms inseparable from Cai's more common event-based gunpowder sketches.
Ultimately, the gunpowder paintings prove that Cai Guo-Qiang is not merely a showman of epic proportions but an image-maker with a tight eye for figural detail. Having invented a medium and a language all his own, he has continued, over a quarter of a century, to tease every possible capacity from it, to bring it into contact with the most diverse range of subject matter imaginable. Life Beneath the Shadow: Michael Scott is a prime example of how Cai strives for consistency and yet achieves versatility in his art.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.