Earthquakes are incredibly destructive to landscapes, human and animal populations and lead to great sense of loss, but societies have a more powerful sense of community and spiritual cohesion which leads to a determined and gradual rebuilding, thus enabling us to counteract the angry energy of the earth with a positive one. The earth's movements are beyond our control; it realigns at its very own discretion, regardless of national borders and time of day. We can only record the rippling distribution of the earth's energy through a seismograph whose image resembles a suddenly energized, almost neurotic ricocheting line, and channel its energy in the ways we know how. The intense Qi of the earth and the communal emotion of a grieve stricken society are energies which Cai Guo-Qiang channels alongside feng shui and astrology in his work titled Project No. 143- The Mark of 921 (Lot 517)to demonstrate that there is a grumbling power superior to humans, one that we cannot begin to tame.
From the sudden formation of the universe to the small movements of the earth, the universe is merely realigning itself, perhaps as the Milky Way shifts slightly to the left, the earth's magma flows to the right. We humans are similarly moved, in momentous tremulous stirrings known as earthquakes. In the creation of The Mark of 921, Cai derived upon the energy released during the earthquake of September 21st 1999, to demonstrate the interconnectivity between the mystic universe, the power of mother nature and humans. Striking a balance between science and philosophy Cai seeks to bind these diversified disciplines together in one art form through gunpowder explosions which simulate the effect of the Big Bang.
This magnificent piece is composed in Cai's signature medium: gunpowder, which Cai began experimenting with as a vehicle of art and creation in 1984. In using a commodity of Chinese invention, one that is also reminiscent of his hometown of Quanzhou, in Fujian province, Cai pays homage to his country's history while exposing the distinctiveness of gunpowder as an artistic medium. Gunpowder even in its creation was not tailored to perfection. It possesses a wild element that is exhilarating in its unpredictability to both the artist and his audience. Cai's use of gunpowder therefore has some experimental elements, as if Cai himself is testing the boundaries of the medium and ways in which he can control its outcome. He does not create his works with gunpowder or fireworks with precise expectations but also participates in anticipation of its success or failure.
Cai has transcended the negative characteristics and connotations of firecrackers and fireworks, focusing on its unanimous use in celebration; they are entertaining, powerful yet exquisite. This use of gunpowder in Cai's works better evokes the visual sensation of serene fireworks than violent explosions despite their restrained and suppressed appearance on paper. Indeed, Cai Guo-Qiang has achieved an artistic breakthrough by adapting a tool of war to more creative, humanistic pursuits.
Blasting gunpowder on a twelve paneled screen for The Mark of 921 is practical in design yet grand in presentation, lending itself to the notion that the artwork is greater than the sum of its panels. Long screens have a distinct Asian component as its traditions originated in Japan for its ritualistic, decorative and functional qualities. They were not only made to separate a large room but were often painted with motifs such as dragons and tigers that demonstrated power and authority of its owner and demanded adoration. Screens as a medium have the innate ability to command attention by its sheer size, but when included with a powerful medium of gold foil or gunpowder by 16th century Japanese artists and Cai, respectively, the command of the piece is drastically amplified.
The Mark of 921 is not only large in scale but also a screen of powerful yet gentle visual properties. The colour is rusticated yet still fresh, the panels, its exposed wood and gunpowder adds a texture previously unseen in traditional screens. The splashed gunpowder radiates bronze toned streaks are reminiscent in colouring of ancient Chinese bronze vessels which in shape and concept demonstrated the amalgamation of heaven (round or circle) and earth (square) in one. Although the vessels were made for human use, it was intended to show an enthusiasm and reverence for a greater power-a concept that aptly applies to the works of Cai. Burning energetically through the paper to expose the raw wooden panels behind it, there is vitality in the line in The Mark of 921, reflective of Cai himself who possess vigor for life that one cannot forgo. Like the encephalograph and cardiograph used to record the several dramatic moments of Project for Extraterrestrials no.9, the line of The Mark of 921 echoes the sudden movement of the earth, representing a livelihood and a course of movement in a most striking shape. The energy does not carry an equally distributed strong momentum throughout but is concentrated near the center, as if the organic emotion, which initially lent itself to conform into this line, were abruptly revived. Such emotion can be derived from several sources; Cai's passion for his art and Cai's consciousness over the social and political context and implication of his work.
Although Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist, the site specific creation of such a work in Taiwan attempts to ease any preexisting cultural and political tension and poignantly referring to the characteristics of culture and art as universal tools in building stronger, friendly foundations for a symbiotic relationship. This type of socially applicable work has been seen before, in Rebuilding the Berlin Wall: Project for Extraterrestrials No.7 where Cai's work when unfolded, literally resembled and re-awakened the emotions of worldwide citizens who witnessed the building and demolishment of the Berlin Wall. These large scale works with sweeping names such as "Project for Extraterrestrials" have become iconic and emblematic as the natural events themselves. Viewers who stand in front of Cai's "Berlin Wall" are emotionally subjected to imagine the real wall in Berlin while survivors of an earthquake, inconsequential of time or place will be emotionally connected to all other earthquake victim because of their comparable experiences.
The widespread acclaim of Cai Guo-Qiang as an innovative artist only reveals a limited profile and perspective of his influence over the art world when in fact Cai can equally be described as a restorer of balance between people and society, of nature over artificiality and of peace over distress. The Mark of 921 was created at an opportune moment of January 15th 2000, in Taichung at a relief fund raiser organized by the Dharma-Drum Mountain Buddhism Foundation and Taiwan Museum of Art, Taiwan. At a staggering length of almost nine meters long and two meters tall, Cai's piece was also immediately auctioned off on site at the Taiwan Museum of Art, Taichung, Taiwan to assist the relief fund. On many levels, the creation, the contextual conditions and the implication of The Mark of 921 directs our attention to Cai as a humanitarian, a man truly attuned to his surroundings and sense of self.
As suggested by the title, the "Mark" of 921 suggests a scarring, a stain upon human life. But "Mark" can alternatively be interpreted as a historic moment, one that should in fact be remembered and memorialized. Cai's did exactly that: it is reminiscent not only of the overwhelming power of mother nature but more so of the aftermath in communal spirit, a sharing of grief and strength by the victims and a message that those who suffered from the September 21st earthquake are not alone.
It is a striking yet powerful piece, where compassion and understanding can be shared by all who come across Cai's The Mark of 921. The connotative portability whereupon the significance of the piece while created in response to the 921 earthquake can alternatively be transmitted to the 512 earthquake relief fund as the consignor has advised that 50 of sales proceeds will be donated to charity. Cai is not only an innovative artist, an experimenter or a dual believer of science and Daoist philosophy but an overseer of well being and balance. He does not expect perfection in each of his projects and is most influential in the conceptual depth and procedural ambitions of his works, one that is presented to a worldwide audience. In encouraging and searching for a community's involvement in his projects, Cai can be seen as a gravitational beacon who attracts a congregation of people, spirit and power. Through the dynamic concept, production and resulting art, Cai begins to slowly reform us all to restore our inner Qi to match that of our greater universe.