In a simultaneous explosion of fire, smoke and awe-inspiring beauty, Cai Guo-Qiang redefines and deconstructs the conventional methods of admiring and engaging with art. The concept of art that is 'creative destruction' is a newly coined term that attempts to classify the multifarious talents of Cai; one who pioneers the advancing spirit of creative innovation and freedom and an artist whom - with continuously new modes of material and expression - refuses to be confined by neither tradition, ideology nor nationality. In 1991, whilst residing in Japan, Cai conceptualized an idea to unite both fire and water, volcano and art in the as-of-yet unrealised 'Sakurajima Volcano Time/Space Reversion Project'. Cai's vision to conjoin crater (at an elevation of approximately 1,100 meters above sea level) and sub-oceanic ground of the active Japanese volcano Sakurajima conceived of utilizing a water-resistant gunpowder fuse on the cooled, stiffened lava which had flown down from the fore of Sakurajima. The fuse was first to be ignited at the seabed, visualising a lava that arises from the sea, crawls over the slope and flows back to the core. The visual shock of witnessing fire emerge from water is a sight to certainly ignite the senses, as well as defying the basic laws of physics. It is also here that Cai's deep underplay about creation and the forces of nature - a message that permeates all of his works - takes place. In ancient mythology and religious beliefs - and indeed in evolutionary science - life is seen to emerge from a large body of water. Fire, often perceived as a destructive force, is also symbolic of life or a 'life-force'. In the Vedic mythology from Hinduism, fire hides in water and it is only in the returned unification of the gods Uma and Shiva - water and fire respectively - that creation can exist upon the act of fire emerging from water.
The inspired visualisation that Cai created as part of this aspiring project is here presented at auction; Sakurajima Volcano Time-Space Reversion Project (Lot 163) can easily be regarded as Cai's magnum opus. This work perfectly replicates the paradoxical calm of a sleeping volcano with that of the destructive forces of fire and gunpowder. One can visualise the trail of the volcano summit, as the line of fire and ink meanders its way up the slope and into the smoking crater. The Sakurajima Volcano is a live volcano that emits white smoke all year round and it is located at Kagashima in Kyushu, where there is a strong tradition of local folklore. This place is also an important, cultural meeting point between the East and the West, as it was here that the Western gunboats and Christian missionaries first landed in Japan. Stemming back from the epoch of the Meiji, Kagashima has maintained its own distinctive culture, set amidst magnificent nature lands, scattered with historic sites. Cai mused upon this unique land with it's significant history and unique cultural traits, and used insightful thought to explore the impact from the eruption of the volcano on such a community. Indeed, this place had a powerful influence on the artist.
Cai is no stranger to the concept of a pivotal place as a junction between the cultures of East and West. In his home town of Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China Marco Polo set sail for Europe after his incredible wanderings throughout the Far East. Cai evidently perceived that Marco Polo did not quite capture the true essence of Chinese culture, as at the 1995 Venice Biennale, Cai sailed into the Venice canals on a junk he had brought from China, with a powerful message; "Marco Polo returned to the West with many fascinating tales from the East and yet there was something he forgot. He forgot to bring back Chinese thought."
Fire ignites human passion. The bombastic sound and awe-inspiring flash of an explosion have a resounding, impressive effect. For his visionary project featured in this sale, 'Project for Extraterrestrials; Dragon Sight Sees Vienna', (Lot 162) Cai created a unique affinity and dialogue between the artwork and the audience via the explosive and instantaneously reactive fireworks. The explosive actions are akin to subliminal drawings, which Cai feels has a lasting power upon the audience, forever etched into the memories and expressing the energy that flows between the spectator and the artwork; "I think at the split second of the explosion, the viewer feels a connection with the energy of the universe, crossing the walls of time and space." In the Greek mythology pertaining to the gods and fire, according to Heraclitus, god is seen to embody the force and energy of fire; regardless of the form it takes or is merged with, fire remains unchanged; it, in fact, remains constant. Heraclitus argued that what changes is our perception of fire, and this is the nature of God: a force that underlies all change in the universe as a single, unchanging entity. Similarly, Cai adopts the use of fire to dialogue the risk and danger that permeates the fine line between creation and destruction. Risk and danger are central to much of Cai's work, where the active process and not the end result is the ultimate goal as the work is allowed take on a path and therefore a life of its own. Cai's work is deeply rooted in the chaotic and accidental power of nature's energy, and in the opposing dynamics of creation and destruction. Gunpowder is commonly known as 'Fire Medicine' in China, due to the belief that alchemists allegedly discovered it in the 8th century while searching for an elixir of eternal life for the emperor. Cai uses Chinese herbs and gunpowder as the main media of his works; two components known for both healing and destruction. Such ingredients mirror the notions of 'destruction' and 'construction' that permeates into Oriental thought and hence reveal how Cai derives much of his inspiration from Chinese history. Cai's works narrate a story of alchemy and create a mythology all of its own. One cannot help seeing a synthesis of the east and west in Cai's astounding methods of artistic expression. He wishes to place his art - with its Chinese historical and folklore inspirations - in an international and contemporary setting that engages with and even challenges western perceptions. He contends the notions of tradition and modernity, creation and destruction, yet these are not polarised through his artworks and he more achieves a merger of the two. This manner of viewing dualities is a strongly Chinese approach - such as the yin and the yang - a balance of opposing forces that achieve harmony in nature. In accordance with the philosophical and religious perceptions upon which Taoism, feng shui and other teachings are based, Cai perceives man and the universe as a unified whole. "[I wish to] travel in time, like the Feng Shui masters and alchemists of ancient times, from the very origins of mankind into the future; to move freely back and forth between the East and West, from micro to macro realms, and between global and local worlds." (Cai Guo-Qiang) Cai grew-up with the daily sound and sight of the explosions and artillery fire upon his hometown from mainland Taiwan, then at war with China, an occurrence which evidently had a lasting impact upon him. Gunpowder and firecrackers were also manufactured and frequently used in Quanzhou to mark important occasions such as funerals, weddings, births and holidays. Quanzhou is also the closest mainland city to Taiwan, and as such Cai's childhood was filled with the sound of hostile artillery fire back and forth. As a stage design graduate, Cai's work has persisted to be scholarly and often politically charged with an overall theatrical theme. Cai often places himself in the transgressive role as both shaman and showman evoking a work, and such inspiration has its very foundation in the Chinese language; xiang, in Chinese means both 'image' and 'phenomenon', hence the image and performance aspects of Cai's work are traditionally combined. The inspiration to use gunpowder as an art form came almost haphazardly on one occasion in 1984, when Cai shot rockets out of a bottle at one of his paintings, thus creating a new medium of art. Cai then sought to foster such unique spontaneity as a provocation to the suppression that he felt from the highly monitored social and artistic traditions in China. Indeed, as a cultural parallel, the celebrated use of gunpowder in the west was also born out of rebellion and political opposition; the paradoxically celebrated attempt of Guy Falkes to destroy the Houses of Parliament in London.
Enter the Dragon; a call to the universe
While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, Cai developed from his exploration into the properties of gunpowder through his paper drawings and began to create his experimentation with outside explosives on a massive scale. From 1989, he has created a series of works entitled "Projects for Extraterrestrials", so called because they are intended to be visible from outer space. These explosion projects, both wildly poetic and ambitious, aim to both impose introspective focus, to introspectively look at what we're doing here on Earth, and for the artist and his spectators to establish a dialogue with the wider universe beyond Earth; "The inclusion of the eyes of extraterrestrials into the project reflects the fundamental sense of crisis concerning the earth and humankind". In November 1999, Cai traveled to Vienna to realise his vision of 'Project for Extraterrestrials; Dragon Sight Sees Vienna', part of the 'I am the Y2K Bug' exhibition. This is a pivotally important project as it was the first time that Cai has conducted one of his performance projects in the West. Here, Cai installed 15 kilos of gunpowder and 600 metres of fuse on the arms of four cranes hovering over the construction site of Vienna's Museum quarter. When ignited, the gunpowder transformed into the dynamic dance of a dragon as flashing lines of fire danced and weaved among the giant construction cranes above Vienna, twisting, turning and slithering as it marked its fiery outline on the Viennese night. The sheer visual and audible shock and fascination such a sight exerted both seduced and terrified the many spectators; "I would like the movement caused by the explosion of my work to join and harmonize with the cosmic movement which has continued ever since the Big Bang". The realised paper work is here a masterful reflection that perfectly captures the awe and rapture of the evening, evoking the image of the fire dragon powerfully meandering through the sky. This spectacular and gargantuan work, offered for our Evening Sale, was created at the time in Vienna and utilises both ink and gunpowder fused together on handmade Japanese paper. The artists' creative method for the accompanying paper artwork is, true to form, relatively spontaneous and Cai allows the artwork to shape a life and form of its own. Cai will take a long, thick rope and stand before the blank paper. He then swerves the rope in his hand, moving it along with his body in combined motion, before a final camber and snap of the rope, it comes to rest upon the paper, and this is the form - unchanged and unaltered - that Cai will then create with gunpowder. Upon reflection of this cultural meeting between east and west, Cai Guo Qiang contrasts the meaning that similar signs have in different cultural contexts and thus seeks to bridge such differing connotations and endow them with new meanings. As an example, the dragon is perceived as an immensely fortunate creature that embodies power and prosperity in the East, whilst in the West it is seen as a threat, as a destructive monster victoriously destroyed in Medieval folk tales. In 'Dragon Sight Sees Vienna; Project for Extraterrestrials' Cai created a new connotation of shared artistic expression and joy. Gunpowder is to Cai representative of Chinese culture itself. In this regard, Cai dialogues a conflicting ingredient that holds very different connotations and indeed uses to East and West; "The Chinese often say they discovered gunpowder when they were searching for immortality, then used it as an element in celebrations and festivals. But Europeans wanted to expand their territory by turning it into a powerful weapon."
Throughout 20 years of his dynamitic performances, installations, large-sized sculptures and series of paintings, Cai maintains his strong sense of personal freedom and innovative exploration through both time and space. Via the medium of his artworks, Cai seeks to embody a culturally unified human spirit as it evolves towards the future and descends to the heavens, seeking to return to and embrace its stance within the universe.