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.