Cai Guo-Qiang
I Want to Believe
F.G.R., July 27, 2009
Cai Guo-Qiang/Blue girl
Cai Guo-Qiang/Blue girl
Early Works: 1985–88

Cai Guo-Qiang’s early works in the exhibition date from 1984 to 1988, when he first developed the basic methodology and process of his signature gunpowder drawings and explosions. This selection of early works reveals Cai’s progressive search for a practice of art making that directly harnesses the spontaneity of natural forces. Ultimately, he arrived at an art where these forces allowed him to relinquish control, resulting in compositions formed by the random marks of sparks and smoke. Cai’s early two-dimensional works on canvas and paper display key themes that would later come to define his conceptual concerns. Among these is his mining of Chinese folklore and mythology, wherein he appropriated popular images, traditional materials (such as gunpowder, a famous Chinese invention that is charged with cultural nationalism), and allegorical stories to specify the meaning of his work.

From the start, Cai sought to connect what he called the “unseen world” to his art, linking it to a metaphysical study of cosmic meridians of energy currents, primordial states of chaos, and the nature of formless matter. Initially, Cai experimented with laying oil paint on the canvas and blasting it with air blown from an electric fan that he held over the surface, shaping the movement of paint with the force of wind, as in Typhoon (1985). In 1984, Cai introduced gunpowder ignited directly on his oil canvases. Cai placed powder and fuses on the surface of the canvas, which he positioned horizontally on the floor. When ignited, first the fuses burned instantly along the cord lines, igniting the gunpowder and creating loud bangs and flashes of fire, which then vanished in clouds of smoke. The result is a textured surface that looks and feels like an explosion—the oil paint on canvas is blackened, charred, and erupted, arrested in a state of being expended in a flash, as in Gunpowder Painting No. 8-10 (1988). After he moved to Japan in 1986, Cai switched from igniting gunpowder on painted canvases to igniting it directly on sheets of Japanese-made paper.

Cai Guo-Qiang/Head on.
Cai Guo-Qiang/Head on.
Gunpowder Drawings

Cai Guo-Qiang’s drawings made from igniting gunpowder explosives laid on paper constitute a new medium of contemporary artistic expression. Together with the explosion events to which they are conceptually linked, Cai’s gunpowder drawings convey his central idea of mediating natural energy forces to create works that connect both the artist and the viewer with a primordial state of chaos, contained in the moment of explosion.

For the drawings, Cai frequently uses sheets of Japanese paper whose manufacture he specially commissions; its fibrous structure withstands and absorbs the impact of the explosion and the charring of the paper. Placing these sheets on the floor, he arranges gunpowder fuses of varying potency, loose explosive powders, and cardboard stencils to create silhouetted forms over the paper’s surface. Here and there, he lays wooden boards to effectively disperse the patterns resulting from smoke and the impact of the explosion. Cai then weights all these elements in place with rocks to intensify the explosion. Once the setup is completed, he ignites a fuse at one end of the work with a stick of burning incense. Then, with loud bangs, the ignited gunpowder rips across the surface of the paper, lighting the array of explosives according to its designated pattern and engaging artist and onlookers in a momentary encounter with the spectacular power of explosive destruction. A second or two later, the paper lies in clouds of acrid smoke. Assistants run to stamp out any embers with rags. Finally, the drawing is removed from the floor and hung up vertically for the artist’s inspection.

Cai Guo-Qiang/Black fireworks
Cai Guo-Qiang/Black fireworks
Cai’s production of gunpowder drawings can be organized into two periods: from his first drawings in 1989 to 1995, while living in Japan; and from 1996 through the present, while living in New York. During the Japan period, Cai produced two major series of gunpowder drawings that were directly connected to the development of his explosion events. These are Projects for Extraterrestrials and Projects for Humankind. The majority of the gunpowder drawings—whether a multi-panel folding screen or a single sheet of paper—were created as diagrams of Cai’s conceptual ideas and proposed visual designs for specific explosion events. Since his move to New York in 1995, Cai’s mastery over his materials has resulted in gunpowder drawings that are increasingly complex as both technical and pictorial feats.

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