Monument of Universe and Life
"Explosions make you feel something intense at the very core of your being because, while you can arrange explosives as you please, you cannot control the explosion itself. And this fills you with a great feeling of freedom."
Beginning in the late 1980s, New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang began using gunpowder in his art making process. Fireworks and explosions offered many distinct characteristics and expressive possibilities unavailable in any other medium. The always unpredictable gap between the process and the result freed the artist creatively while, at the same time, the material itself offered a multi-sensory aesthetic experience, deeply rooted in Chinese traditions, but also immediately, viscerally, and nearly universally recognizable. The explosive sound, the flashes of light, and finally the residual smoke and odor point to an elusive, violent and almost magical power that is instant and cathartic.
Cai Guo Qiang's earliest experiments with the use of gunpowder are in many ways the purest expression of the thought and philosophy behind his art-making. Having left China in the mid-1980s, Cai in some sense first encountered traditional Chinese philosophy and aesthetics in Japan. In his studies, he was intrigued by the apparent parallels between modern physics theories and ancient Daoist notions of qi - theories surrounding underlying notions of creation, matter and being. The influence of these theories can be found throughout Cai's works, and in many ways his earliest experiments serve as the purest distillation of the artist's practice. In the rare early work from 1988, Gun Powder Painting No. 08-66 (Lot 1510) featured in the Day Sale, the artist mixes gunpowder with oil pigment.
Despite the intimate scale of the painting, Cai manages to create a surface that evokes both the elemental experimentations of modern master Zao Wou-ki and the mysterious images brought back from explorations of the moon's surface. The gunpowder writhes like traditional ink strokes across the surface, while the texture suggests a geographical formation from time immemorial. Similarly, an untitled canvas from 1993-4, features a dense mass of gunpowder that stands in violent contrast to the field of delicate pink and white strokes, seeming to penetrate the canvas like a wayward asteroid. These pure, almost deliberately primitive images pulsate with an energy and an agency that is otherworldly, a theme and an effect that would become increasingly significant in his works to come.
Throughout his career, Cai has used animal imagery drawn from both Eastern and Western cultural imaginaries -- dragons, turtles, wolves, lions, and more. Based primarily in New York since 1996, Cai has returned to his animal motifs with renewed interest since the attacks of 9/11. In large-scale installations and gunpowder drawings, Cai relies increasingly on ferocious and heroic animal motifs. In his magnificent Eagle and Tiger (Lot 1033) from 2005, the use of the explosive materials perfectly captures the creatures' character and energy. Rather than realistic, observational depictions, the tigers convulse across the paper in explosions of pigment and gunpowder. The two sheets display near mirror reflections of each other, with the tigers arched across the compositions towards the center with the eagles swooping elegantly and powerfully down behind them.
The forms of the tigers are evoked by a combination of pigment and explosion; the eagles in turn emerge from the contrast of white pigment against the gunpowder that outlines their silhouettes. As such, they appear almost like otherworldly, magical creatures, whose existence is only made visible by Cai's casting of gunpowder around them. Despite their languid poses, the technique imbues the tigers with a ferocious energy that transcends a mere "realistic" or descriptive representation. Indeed, the unusually formal structure of the composition reminds the viewer of descriptions of constellations, imaginative articulations of points of light in the night sky that illustrate archetypal and mythological stories about the formation of the universe.
This re-ordering of the scale and viewer's position has been an essential strategy for Cai. As he did throughout his Projects for Extraterrestrials series, he reimagines that typical scale on which we imagine natural and historical events. Here he has taken a dramatic but simple image of nature and elevated it to the status of a grand metaphor for humanity and history. The tigers, symbolic of military power and considered "king of the jungle" in Asia, appear to be languishing under an assault, with no clear sense of who or where the enemy is. The eagles may be images of peace or equally could scavengers on the attack. Considered within the body of his post-9/11 work, the mythic appearance of these noble creatures in the throes of battle and death remind us that such cycles of conflict are as old as time itself, and as such have been stripped of their urgency. Despite the transcendent aspirations of Cai's own aesthetic, his works are in fact loaded with socio-political observations. Aesthetically, Cai has contributed a genuinely new and innovative approach to contemporary art-making. The furious energy of his gunpowder drawings juxtapose animal figures ripe with symbolic and metaphysical significance for both Western and Eastern audiences alike, challenging our view of an accurate and "true" depiction of nature. At the same time, Cai's imagery draws concisely from overlapping symbolic registers, creating succinct parables that speak to very contemporary situations, resulting in a harrowing and ambiguous scene of chaos and destruction that is as timeless as it is timely.