Throughout Cai Guo-Qiang's more than 20 year career of creative experimentation, Cai has displayed a relentless pursuit of artistic freedom and innovation. Whether working in performance, installation, conceptual art, or his gunpowder "drawings" and multi-media fireworks displays, Cai fuses Western and Eastern techniques and sensibilities, creating an art practice that attempts to encompass multiple cultural positions and perspectives, pointing to the possibility of universal, transcendent experience. Cai's extraordinary output has established him as a true leader in international contemporary art, receiving his first mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York this year, which will further travel to Beijing, Tokyo, and the Guggenheim Bilbao. Cai has also been selected as the lead designer for the opening ceremonies of this summer's 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Cai has been working with gunpowder most of his career, and he produces a gunpowder drawing to accompany the majority of his major installation projects. As a medium, gunpowder has obvious roots in ancient Chinese culture, as well as the capacity to cut across multiple sensory - sight, sound, smell -- and cultural registers at once. It speaks to both Daoist concepts of being and hypotheses of contemporary physics - theories of matter and energy underling all phenomenological reality. Cai has said, "I feel what is common to East and West is that they both know there must be some special character, some special form which draws on our attitude toward creation itself. Art should display a creativity with rich effects that gives people an entirely new understanding of beauty. In my work I search for the primal chaos within time and space. In that chaos I find unlimited possibilities for life and an escape from our utilitarian notions, like renouncing everything for a religious life. In the vast and empty universe, even the greatest wonders are ordinary."
The gunpowder drawing shown here is from Cai's 2001 project, Fireworks from Heaven, an installation produced for MEGA WAVE - Towards a New Synthesis, the 2001 Yokohama International Triennial of Contemporary Art. Here Cai's explosion of gunpowder and pigment roar across the composition like a meteorite hitting the earth, culminating in an expansive spray. Even though the fireworks of the title are originating from "heaven", the perspective of the composition requires that the viewer take an inverted perspective, and we are invited to view the piece as though from an otherworldly or extraterrestrial position, watching these fireworks land on a remote surface. This reversal is common to Cai's Taoist sensibility; the explosion is as violent as it is sublime; in destruction there is also creation, and within these dualities Cai offers us something mesmerizing and beautiful.