Cai Guo-Qiang staged his most recent explosion installation, ‘Mystery Circle’ in Los Angeles at the beginning of the month, to open his exhibition ‘Sky Ladder’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition displays the artist’s continuing fascination with the invisible forces of nature, and his own personal view of the universe. MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch has said in the build-up to the exhibition that the artist “fuses historical references and a futuristic vision to create art that is totally contemporary. His work engages his audiences both experientially and visually. It is spectacular but also intimate. Cai draws the viewer into his imagined world.” Spectacular it certainly was – crowds gathered and gasped as they witnessed the huge explosion staged in LA, as fireworks and rockets catapulted themselves into the sky with a series of light-effusing cracks.
Cai has used gunpowder in his work for many years; it has been interpreted as a kind of meditation on the innate energy present in nature. In these explosions (see also the mesmerising images from ‘Black Ceremony’, above) Cai makes destruction a thing of beauty. This seems to me a quite profound statement – he plays on the childish delight in explosions and destruction. In his performances, explosions and destruction don’t necessarily equate to the sentiments of violence, war or aggression. There is a beauty present in his works – he delightedly draws attention to the pure vitality, energy and the spectacular quality inherent in destruction. “Destruction and construction,” he has said, “yin and yang, positive and negative; the energy is ever exchanging and altering. Just as the moment when fireworks explode – light – and die out – dark – is also the moment of destruction, which often contains the poetic beauty and power simultaneously.”
The artist’s work has been associated with the idea of terrorism – one could even on a superficial level look at the work as a kind of celebration of violence. Cai has countered this by saying that it is the artist’s job when working to offer a new perspective through art, to “separate himself from his identity as a person.” He sees it as playing a role, “from the angle of a destroyer.” Indeed, Cai seems to strip the violence from destruction and replace it with beauty.
His explosion projects explore the tension between serenity and chaos. His influences are extensive and varied, including the philosophy of Feng shui, Chinese medicine, Science and Maoist / socialist concepts for content (Mao Zedong’s tenet was “destroy nothing, create nothing.”) However, he doesn’t see his role as an artist as that of opinion-maker, despite these influences and, consequently, the possible messages that may be gleaned from his work: “The work of art comes into being because our society has this predicament… Artists do not pronounce it good or bad.”
Cai was born in China and, like his contemporary Ai Weiwei, has spoken of his desire to confront the very restrictive artistic and social climate there – this was one of the initial catalysts for his interest in working with gunpowder. To begin with the artist experimented with gunpowder drawings, and these eventually led to his work with explosions. “Gunpowder not only expresses a concept of the universe in the East, but also contains historic memories”, Beijing-based art critic Huang Du has explained. “[These] are distilled in Cai’s aesthetics of explosion, presenting a converging point of visual beauty, stimulating smell and heartfelt emotion”. Cai creates a purely sensual, abstract and inherently celebratory experience.
Cai Guo-Qiang has lived in New York since 1995, after spending ten years in Japan. He has been criticised by writers such as Ben Davies (critic for Artnet) for his changeable opinions, and his work has been accused of being hollow. Cai counters thus: “My art often appears to be full of compromises; it may even seem that it lacks principles. For me, what is most interesting is the creative process itself…”
It is this focus on the process, on the experience of creation, that gives Cai’s work its power. He wishes to celebrate the senses, he wishes for the artist and the viewer alike to relinquish their responsibilities and their burdens and simply marvel in their being. Moreover, he wishes for the artist and the viewer to simply have fun.
“I am famous in the art world in China for one phrase: ‘art can be a reckless doing.’ You can play with it.”