"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." -- Cai Guo-Qiang
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 multisensory aesthetic experience that is deeply rooted in Chinese traditions but also immediately, viscerally, and nearly universally recognizable. The explosive sounds, flashes of light, residual smoke and odor point to an elusive, violent and almost magical power that is instantaneous and almost archetypal.
Throughout his career, Cai has used animal imagery drawn from both Eastern and Western cultural imaginaries -- dragons, turtles, 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 Tiger and Eagle 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 artist uses the shadow traces left by the actual fireworks to serve as flying and fallen arrows. The tiger forms vary in density and liveliness, perhaps in accord with their relative remaining life force. An image of an eagle appears on the far right of the composition, bathed in a white area of pigment, untouched, and representing the only area of possible peace and serenity in the work. As with many of his "gunpowder drawings," the work retains an almost organic quality and a sulfurous scent, as if the smoke has just lifted from the battle scene.
In Cai's installation from the 1998 "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" exhibition organized by the Asia Society and PS 1 in New York, the artist famously drew from a classic Chinese military tale in an installation entitled Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows. The title refers to a story involving an army whose ammunition stocks have been depleted. They ingeniously decide to play the passive victim in order to literally capture their enemy's arrows and turn the arrows triumphantly against them. The work stood out as a powerful statement about China's own ambiguous and feared status in the international imaginary as a rising super-power.
The work is full of chaos and destruction. Tigers, symbolic of military power and considered "king of the jungle" in Asia, are assaulted from all directions, with no clear sense of who or where the enemy is. 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 scene of hollow heroics and destruction that is as timeless as it is timely.