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FREEDOM IN CHAOS: CAI GUO-QIANG

Though his art harkens back to ancient Chinese inventions and philosophies, works by the world-famous Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, known for his pyrotechnic performance pieces and provocative installations, are more relevant than ever.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Mountain in Heat, 2016. Gunpowder on canvas. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio



 

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Cai Guo-Qiang in front of his work Color Gunpowder Drawing for City of Flowers in the Sky. Uffizi Galleries, 2018. Photo by Yvonne Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio

An unmissable name in contemporary art, Cai’s larger-than-life spectacles tackle environmentalism, human struggle and nostalgia, to compelling and at times haunting, effect. Among many things, Cai Guo-Qiang has mastered the art of freezing time.
In his iconic installation, Head On (2006), a pack of 99 life-like wolves are paralysed mid-run, with those at its fore colliding with a pane of near-invisible glass: a comment on man’s relentless, Sisyphean struggle for progress.
Meanwhile, a large-scale piece from 2004 suspends cars pierced with light tubes to recreate a car bombing in various stages of motion. It was titled Inopportune, Stage One to confront the dissonance in a beautiful portrayal of violence, particularly in the wake of 9/11.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Elegy, 2014. Realized on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, Shanghai, August 8, 5:00pm, approx. 8 minutes. Daytime explosion event.

Commissioned by the Power Station of Art, Shangai. Chapter Three: Consolation, 2014. Photo by Stephanie Lee, courtesy Cai Studio

But Cai is best known for his more ephemeral works, which harness gunpowder, an ancient Chinese invention, to orchestrate sweeping, abstract spectacles. His explosions have unfolded on canvasses and skies above New York City’s East River, the amphitheatre of Pompeii and more recently, the metaverse. His first virtual reality fireworks display, Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, was launched to celebrate the palace’s 600th anniversary in 2020, while his NFT debut Transient Eternity, depicting his process in creating 101 gunpowder paintings, sold for a record-making $2.5 million in July.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Explosion Studio, 2019. Realized at the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, February 21, 3:00pm. Gunpowder, canvas,

silk, plaster, marble, panel for fresco, glass, terracotta, wooden boat. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio



 

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Explosion Studio, 2019. Realized at the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, February 21, 3:00pm. Gunpowder, canvas,

silk, plaster, marble, panel for fresco, glass, terracotta, wooden boat. Photo by Yvonne Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio



 

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder, 2015. Realized off Huiya Island, Quanzhou, June 15, 4:45am (dawn),

100 seconds, fuse and helium balloon 500x 5.5m.

Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

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The Fujian-born, New York-based contemporary artist grew up surrounded by ancient practices and philosophies, from feng shui to Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine, which continue to pervade his work. During China’s cultural revolution beginning 1966, he witnessed the years-long destruction of pre-communist art and culture, known as the Four Olds. The son of an esteemed calligraphy artist, Cai Rui-Qin, who spent the lion’s share of his wages on books, Cai recalled having to burn the family’s collection at night amid government crackdowns.
Decades later, violence and destruction are distilled in Cai’s art. He alludes to China’s environmental crisis in the likes of Silent Ink and The Ninth Wave — the former a 250-square-meter pool filled with 20,000 litres of calligraphy ink; the latter, a dilapidated Noah’s Ark inhabited by fake endangered animals. Gunpowder, adopted after experiments involving shooting toy rockets at a canvas, helped Cai rebel against his father’s traditional artistic techniques. When he moved to Japan in 1986, a focus on materialism purified his approach, which earned him global acclaim after his arrival in New York around a decade later.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Ignition of Fragile at Al Riwaq, Doha, 2011. Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio



 

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Light No.1, 2020. Gunpowder on canvas. Photo by Christopher Burke, courtesy Cai Studio

“I was searching for an energy that could disrupt my art,” Cai noted in a documentary centred on his work and hard-won magnum opus, Sky Ladder (2015): a 1,650-foot-long ladder that lit up in an explosive crescendo over a fishing village in his hometown Quanzhou after three failed attempts in 1994, 2001 and 2012 in Bath, Shanghai and Los Angeles.
For Cai, the unpredictability of gunpowder has continued to be a driving force for experimentation. “It’s very important that there is always this uncontrollability that’s a part of the work,” he told Art21. “My way of doing it is just to flow with the material...and let it take me where it wants me to go.”
The technique has extended his reach into but highly sought-after collaborations, including a capsule with Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please brand under its Guest Artist Series in 1998. Gunpowder was burnt into white fabric to create a dragon’s winding silhouette, before the material was pleated and made into clothing.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Structure, 2019. Gunpowder on canvas. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

But Sky Ladder, a tribute to his elderly grandmother, is far from the only work of Cai’s steeped in nostalgia and idealism. In Heritage (2013), 99 stuffed animals drink from a reflective watering hole — a utopian metaphor stressing the commonality in human survival.
Critics have deemed this environmental and socio-political commentary at odds with Cai’s work with the Chinese government — which included fireworks displays for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2008, and Asia Pacific Economic Forum in 2001 — to which he said, “this sort of thing is only an issue if you are Chinese.” There is however, no question that Cai has managed to tread the line between provoking discourse around urgent issues and being a political provocateur in the eyes of Beijing.
Ultimately, Cai’s body of work is more valuable for its contradictions. In marrying violence with beauty; contemporary issues with ancient locales and philosophies; spontaneity with meticulousness, he imbues his art with a timeless relevance and urgency.

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Cai Guo-Qiang, Heritage (installation view) 2013. Animals: polystyrene, gauze, resin and hide.

Installed with artificial watering hole: water, sand, drip mechanism.

Photo by Mark Sherwood, QAGOMA


 

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Text: Zoe Suen

Images: Courtesy Cai Studio

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