The Explosive Elegance of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Gunpowder Drawings

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jan 7, 2015 8:01PM

Cai Guo-Qiang at Axel Vervoordt, Hong Kong. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt and the artist.

As the creation myth for gunpowder goes, 9th-century alchemists happened upon the incendiary concoction while searching for an immortality elixir. Their invention, as we well know, would go on to produce the opposite outcome. 

New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang relishes the mystical, provocative properties of this reactive substance. Since the 1980s, gunpowder has been Cai’s primary medium and the most-talked about facet of his internationally celebrated, occasionally polarizing 30-year career. In the past six or so years, Cai has headlined major exhibitions and orchestrated high-drama (read: explosive) happenings at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Guggenheim, the Geffen Contemporary at L.A. MoCA, and Shanghai’s Power Station of Art.

Most recently, a focused exhibition at Axel Vervoordt Gallery calls attention to the quieter aftereffects of Cai’s pyrotechnics. Both pieces, executed in 2006, resulted from the careful arrangement—then detonation of—gunpowder on rice paper overlaid with stencil. As video accounts of Cai’s process reveal, a fuse is lit, an explosion ensues, and throngs of assistants scurry to pat out fires. While the technique is dangerous and largely unruly, the resultant images are delicate and laced with an enigmatic, age-old energy.

Cai specializes in this sort of dualism—in both his installations and wall works, volatility turns to serenity, anarchy begets order. Interest in the expressive power of opposites can be traced to Cai’s upbringing, when his grandmother infused the household with the Taoist veneration of spontaneity, creative release, and yin and yang (the interconnected duality of the universe). Today, these concepts have clear cultural and political legs, especially when delivered by a Chinese artist who came of age under the heavy-handed Maoist regime.

Chun Qiu: Bygones (2006) combines the untethered dynamism of Cai’s gunpowder abstractions with the refined aesthetic of traditional Chinese ink paintings. The very large, four-panel work recalls something between a primal cave drawing and a delicate Tang Dynasty masterpiece. In it, small, indistinct figures are obscured by bursts that might be trees, stars, or explosives. No matter what the imagined scenario, there is a sense of human ephemerality—whether in the face of natural phenomena or self-created perils like environmental decay, oppression, and war.

Impressions of Stage One (2006) refers to an empty, brightly lit stage built by Cai in the middle of the secluded Italian countryside. In the gunpowder likeness, an off-kilter rectangle floats on a spray of dots and lines resembling untamed grass or a big celestial spray, like the Northern Lights. Is this topsy-turvy scene waiting for people to set things in balance, or is nature in the process of sorting itself out, after we humans have left it well alone?

Alexxa Gotthardt

Cai Guo-Qiang” is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, Nov. 20, 2014–Jan. 10, 2015.

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