Cai Guo-Qiang has a blast with explosive art
The Chinese artist, whose pyrotechnics will feature heavily at the Beijing Olympic ceremonies, is the focus of a major exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum. His favorite medium: gunpowder.
The Guggenheim Museum's new art exhibition starts with a bang. Inside the building's central rotunda, a corkscrew mobile of nine cars flips through the seven-story space, light rods sparking from each vehicle. The overall effect of the installation, titled "Inopportune: Stage One," resembles a sequential, freeze-frame representation of a car bombing.Skip to next paragraph
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The artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, delights in creating "explosive events" – pyrotechnical displays as conceptual art – as well as smaller-scale works that harness the snap, crackle, and pop of gunpowder. "Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe," which unfurls at the Guggenheim through May 28, also showcases pioneering works in which the artist ignited gunpowder on fibrous paper to create provocative imagery.
Significantly, it's the first solo show the museum has offered a Chinese-born artist and signals the coming of age of a generation of postrevolutionary Chinese artists who are receiving much attention, among whom Cai (his name is pronounced Sigh Gwo Chang), is the best-known.
The slight 50-year-old, who now lives in New York, is about to become an even bigger name. As the art director of visual and special effects for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, his blazing creations will illumine the televised opening and closing ceremonies that will be watched by millions across the world.
In the meantime, the Guggenheim survey of more than 80 works from the 1980s to the present provides an incendiary introduction to his work. Cai collaborated with co-curators Thomas Krens and Alexandra Munroe to fill the Guggenheim with what he calls "a sense of energy and explosion." His site-specific installations, gunpowder drawings, and videos of past explosive events curl up the spiral ramps of the Guggenheim, which he imagined, he says through an interpreter, "as a scroll for you to unroll and walk through ... a scroll of my artistic career."
Growing up in the port city of Quanzhou on the Strait of Taiwan, the blast of bombs was background noise for Cai as Taiwan and the Mainland exchanged bombardments. Gunpowder, a Chinese invention, also fueled celebratory fireworks, displaying a benign, social use of its power.
Influenced by the Cultural Revolution of 1966-77, Cai saw these dual uses of gunpowder as embodying Chairman Mao's slogan, "No destruction, no construction." Cai couples the belief that demolition precedes rebirth with Taoism. In Taoism, the primal life force of pure energy (Qi) flows through the interpenetrating opposites of yin and yang. This Mao-meets-Tao outlook infuses Cai's philosophy: all polarities are only facets of constantly transforming reality.
The exhibition's title "I Want to Believe," indicates the artist's faith in the invisible world. His art, he says, represents "that ambivalent space where the seen and unseen merge."