Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese-born artist known for orchestrating pyrotechnic spectacles, is in Los Angeles this week to create three gigantic “gunpowder drawings” before a live audience.
Having attended a number of Cai’s gunpowder-drawing events I can attest to the excitement that they generate. It’s not what one might feel watching Rubens paint an oil sketch. It’s more the thrill of setting off a cherry bomb under a tin can. He sprinkles gunpowder onto paper or canvas, covers the composition with cardboard to contain the combustion, then lights the fuse and steps back. A fizzing, sputtering eruption rolls down the length of the drawing, smoke fills the air, and assistants race in to tamp down flames. The burnt image miraculously is revealed.
The trio of new works will be part of “Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder,” his first West Coast exhibition, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary from April 8-July 30. To launch the show Cai plans one of his celebrated aerial fireworks displays. The MOCA “explosion event” will light up the Geffen on April 7. (See renderings below.) MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch approached Cai because he thought his work would complement the concurrent “Ends of the Earth” exhibition (April 8-July 30) about land art before 1974. Cai says his work will provide an “interesting contrast” with the land art.
In the decade since I’ve known him, Cai, 54, has had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bilbao and the National Museum of China, he curated the first Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennial, and designed an explosion event for the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Fame hasn’t spoiled him. Tall and trim with dark gray hair crowning the peak of his otherwise shaved head, he remains a genial and unpretentious man, humble about his accomplishments and eager to engage in conversation (in our case mainly through a translator).
Mysticism and Extraterrestrials
In case you were wondering, there is method to Cai’s pyromaniac madness. The drawings and explosions always relate to a theme, though the theme itself at MOCA is somewhat mad: the “Sky Ladder” show is about aliens – not the ones from other countries but from outer space. Leitmotifs include spaceships and so-called “crop circles,” those partially explained patterns impressed into cultivated fields whose configurations, visible only from the air, are said by some to be evidence of visitors from another planet.
Personally, I have always reckoned that crop circles (and landmarks such as the Nazca Lines in Peru and the chalk figures carved into the English countryside) are the work of talented teams of land artists, but Cai is not so sure. When I visited him the other day at his studio in Lower Manhattan he pointed out that crop circles can have tremendously complicated and precise designs and appear sometimes overnight. “If farmers can do this they could all become graphic designers!” he says, adding that he’s not sure that they aren’t evidence of aliens or some supernatural event. “I don’t know, but I like it,” he says.
Cai may not sincerely believes that crop circles are imprints of UFO landings or result from aliens branding the earth with energy beams, but he clearly likes the idea of reminding people that we likely are not alone. It feels a bit like a joke, but then, it’s not so funny.
Cai has made extraterrestrials an ongoing theme since a 1990 explosion event at Museum City Tenjim in Fukuoka Japan. The goal, he said at the time, “is to initiate a dialogue between extraterrestrials and human beings by means of reproducing the mystery crop circles with gunpowder explosions.” The “dialogue” may be one-sided – how many extraterrestrials will show up at MOCA? – but Cai wants to get people thinking about intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. That’s always humbling and leads us to address the fundamental enigma of human existence.
Exhibition Plans for MOCA
At MOCA he plans to install on the ceiling an inverted field with crop circles. The 26 x 118-foot rectangle will be densely carpeted with wheat-like reeds in which patches are pressed down to form circles. When visitors look up they assume the perspective of extraterrestrials looking down at their handiwork on earth. Again, I’m not among the faithful vis a vis crop circles, but the suspended field of feathery reeds sounds quite lovely.
Hundreds of workers in Cai’s native Fujian province spent four months inserting several million stalks into glue-filled holes in wood panels — 10,000 stalks per square meter. The crop-circle areas had to be bent and stay flattened, so workers manually inserted wire inside a half million stalks. Such massive hand-fabrication jobs — I am reminded of Ai Weiwei’s 10 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds — would not be possible in the U.S. or Europe.
In a nearby gallery Cai’s three huge gunpowder drawings will elaborate the interplanetary theme. “Desire for Zero Gravity” will represent humans’ perennial efforts to escape the bounds of earth. The 11 x 39-foot canvas depicts 99 fanciful vehicles — everything from a mechanical goose to missiles — but centers on an image of the 16th-century Chinese official Wan Hu who perished on his homemade rocket chair. (NASA named a moon crater after him.) “Chaos in Nature,” an even larger canvas, will depict a galactic maelstrom of tornadoes, tsunamis and other natural cataclysms representing the uncontrollable powers of the cosmos that Cai says are a constant in his work. And “Childbood Spaceship” will be an oceanic 13 x 108-foot paper scroll with images Cai associates with his youthful reveries about the mysteries of the universe, from feng shui to his grandmother’s “superstitions and supernatural abilities” to imagined space voyages. “I’m trying to present my view about the cosmos, how everything from Chinese medicine to Taoism to astrophysics influences my practice,” he says.
Watching Cai’s drawings being made is thrilling. Indeed, the event itself can be as impressive as the resulting drawings. But many are superb – particularly those in which figurative elements are well defined amid an evocative haze. Cai has developed techniques to achieve both linear precision and painterly effects, experimenting with pyrotechnic material that leaves different colored residues to produce sophisticated images in his unique medium. When I visited the studio there were large-scale drawings of a wintry mountain range and of Adam and Eve (based on Durer’s). I would have considered them quite lovely had they been made with conventional media, but their affects were achieved with burning gunpowder.
The inaugural explosion event promises to be quite an entertainment. It begins at dusk when flying saucer-shaped fireworks hover and spin above the roof of the Geffen. Then from the north exterior wall of the museum a crop circle pattern composed of more than 30,000 mini rockets will shoot out horizontally more than 100 feet across the parking lot towards spectators. Presiding over the crop circles will be a giant alien-deity outlined with a fuse that ignites a rocket halo when it reaches the head. Preliminary sketches suggest a Byzantine blessing Christ with a face from Roswell. The image will remain burned onto the wall, an architectural gunpowder drawing, but who knows how long it will remain?
Cai recently returned from a long stay in Doha where he was the guest of the royal family and mounted the first solo show in the new Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. When I visited him in New York he showed me images of the exhibition, which drew ties between his native Fujian and the local culture. He shipped boulders from Fujian embedded with Arabic inscriptions taken from Muslim tombs in his home region. (There are 60,000 Muslims in his hometown of Quanzhou.) He made a gunpowder drawing based on video he made of the royals’ elaborate training regimen for thoroughbred horses, and created a mid-air installation of replicas of falcons assailing a camel. Among other works the piece de resistance was an exquisite mural of 480 white porcelain tiles covered with cast chrysanthemums – a ceramic product traditionally exported from his hometown of Quanzhou – across which he used gunpowder to burn a calligraphy of the Arabic word for “fragile.” Mathaf hopes to acquire the 10 x 60-foot mural.
No sooner than he completes the MOCA show, Cai will be off to Hangzhou in Southern China. There he will work on a barge in the West Lake using gunpowder to sketch the panorama on a vast sheet of silk. The work will join a pendant that he created there last September, and other works for an exhibition titled “Spring” that opens at the Zhejiang Museum on April 20.