The Explosive Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
The firework was much less spectacular at its inception than the one that we know today. Discovered by accident in China after tossing bamboo into a fire, followed by several subsequent explosions, the rest was history. Modifications to the bamboo chute firework happened over time, adding flammable elements like sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, which created even larger explosions. The eventual combination of explosives with projectile elements gave the firework an additional use as weaponry, used to ward off spirits and defend against trespassers. Fast forward a couple thousand years–fireworks are now used mostly for entertainment purposes, most notably in large pyrotechnic displays, but use has also trickled down into the realm of visual artistry with the help of artists like Cai Guo-Qiang.
Chinese multimedia artist Cai Guo-Qiang is the mind behind elaborate pyrotechnic visuals you may have seen before, but the breadth of his works extends far beyond site-specific firework displays. With a career spanning sculpture, portraiture, and recent forays in film, Cai Guo-Qiang continues to push the boundaries of installation artwork, suspending us between the what we know to be real and ephemeral ideas that add structure to our world.
Guo-Qiang initially began working with gunpowder to confront austere artistic tradition in China, and to engender spontaneity in his work. His first gunpowder works were experimental drawings that evolved into large-scale explosives, culminating in what Cai calls “explosion events.” Fireworks were a logical next step and the perfect catalyst for his ideas–temporal and fleeting, while potent and impactful. After receiving esteemed acclaim for his pyrotechnic sculptures, he moved to New York with a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to promote the cultural and artistic exchanges between Asian countries and the States.
Guo-Qiang is world renowned for the spectacular nature of his work, suspending color, light, and other artifacts in midair to achieve a marked surreality. He says of his creative process:
“My idea of making this work is not to do any criticism or replication but to focus on what it means for sculptors to create realist sculptures in the time the work was created. ...The end goal is not to make perfect sculptures and have them exhibited elsewhere and then have them collected somewhere. The key is to focus on the process of fabrication of these artworks, to pay attention to the process of the artists making these sculptures, rather than where these sculptures will end up and how they will look in the end.”
Cai Guo-Qiang has been selected as a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize (1996), won the 48th Venice Biennale International Golden Lion Prize, and the CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts (2001), as well as having residencies in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NY), the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Qatar), the National Art Museum of China, and was awarded the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo, making him the first Chinese national Laureate. His documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang–which documents his rise to global renown and tackling his most cherished project to date–is available for streaming on Netflix now.