Cai Guo Qiang (b. 1957)
CAI GUO-QIANG (Chinese, B. 1957)

Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Eagles

Details
CAI GUO-QIANG (Chinese, B. 1957)
Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Eagles
signed 'Cai Guo-Qiang' in Pinyin; dated '2003'; titled 'Eagle: Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky' (lower right)
gunpowder on paper mounted on wood, quadriptych
overall: 230 x 310 cm. (90 1/2 x 122 in.)
Executed in 2003
Provenance
Albion Gallery, London, UK
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Albion/Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art Ltd., Cai Guo-Qiang: Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky, London, UK, 2004 (illustrated, p. 140).

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay

Engaging the Transcendental Power of Art in a Social Context
In November 2003, Cai Guo-qiang produced the social project Man, Eagle, and Eye in the Sky at the Siwa Oasis, Egyptian Sahara Desert. The project was made in collaboration with over 600 school children from 40 schools throughout the Governate of Marsa Matruh. Commissioned by the Siwa Art Project, an organization that promotes Siwa's cultural heritage internationally in an ecologically sensitive manner, the interactive, community-based project utilized 200 Chinese kites that were painted by the school children, and then flown in the desert skies. At the end of the five-day project the kites were exploded with gunpowder.

From 1997 onwards, kites have become part of Cai's visual vocabulary, as a representation of a union between man and heaven, an interactive medium between viewers and the art, and an object that integrates and extends the spatial arrangements in his performance and installation pieces. For the Siwan project, Cai used three emblematic motifs: Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky. "Man" signifies humankind as an agent of history; "Eagle" symbolizes Alexander the Great, who received an oracle in Siwa; and "Eye in the Sky" represents humankind's vision.

Cai led painting workshops and painted 300 kites brought from Weifang, China, the city that hosts the annual Weifang International Kite Festival. The colourfully painted kites demonstrate imaginations of children who were involved. Some older boys helped fly these kites over desert skies, over temple ruins and mud-brick houses. At the end of the week, one hundred kites were tied together and linked with gunpowder fuse, and then exploded at sunset across the White Mountain, as the inhabitants of Siwa watched the explosion from 300 meters below. Cai memorialized the project by creating a series of gunpowder drawings. The work that best display Cai's unique creative concepts and achievements from this extraordinary series is Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Eagles (Lot 43) is offered here in the Evening Sale.

The project demonstrates Cai as a transnational artist who constantly challenges the function and meaning of art within a wider socio-cultural context. As Reiko Tomii puts it, "Man, Eagle, and Eye in the Sky best exemplifies the four most salient characteristics of Cai's social project: his exploration of the symbolic power of art in a social context; his profound interest in local history and culture and astute incorporation of them into a project; his active collaboration with the local people at all levels, from children to government officials; and his contribution, both cultural and economic, to the local community." (Guggenheim Museum Publications, Cai Guoqiang - I Want To Believe, New York, USA, 2008, p. 254). During the processes, as Sharmini Pererira notes, the end point of the artwork shifts from something enclosed and pre-determined to something characterized by processes of dialogue and negotiation that arise through the interaction of situations, individuals, groups, terrains and factors which lie predominantly outside the field of art. (Albion/Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art Ltd., Cai Guoqiang: Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky, London, UK, 2004, p. 13)

Cai's contraction to extreme site-specificity and a conscious and constant endeavor to transcend cultural and historical limitations in his projects, poignantly demonstrates the artist's utopian ideals of social engagement and mobilization, and his core belief in the transformational quality of art and culture in society. As such, Cai's Eagles combine time, process, action, observation, performance, and events into a unique art form, an aesthetic that rejects materialist tendencies and embraces the unpredictable. The work derives universal meanings extending far beyond the moment and the immediate locality, generating a new focus on our cultures and interpersonal relationships. As even the most local of arts or cultures can still be linked to world trends, and for Cai, this is perhaps where cross-regionalism begins to extend toward a greater world unity.

Eagles in the Sky
Eye-Kite Flying People describes Cai's expression of a particularly important moment of the project that features eagle-shaped kites hovering over the Great Sand Sea in Siwa. The eagles represent Alexander the Great traversing across the Saharan desert to consult its famed Oracle at the Temple of Amun. He purportedly asked two questions, "Will I rule the world?" and "Am I the Son of God?" to which the response was allegedly in the affirmative.

Cai's choice of the motif of the eagle in its local context of Egypt leads participants and viewers of the project to immediately consider the ancient Egyptian symbol of the falcon, which represents Horus, the god of the sky. In mythology, the image is also associated with the God Zeus of the Greeks, and Jupiter of the Romans. The eagle symbolizes strength, courage and immortality, and is deemed as the king of the air and the messenger of the highest Gods. As such, even in contemporary times, the symbol of the Eagle of Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt, is represented in the Egyptian coat of arms.

The project evokes an aura of magic and mystery in Cai's inspiration from ancient heroes, Egyptian imagery and hieroglyphs, Oracles and fortune-telling. But this is in essence also informed by Cai's own belief in destiny and metaphysical matters: "I believe in unseen energies and forcesK. Perhaps this sounds a bit mystical from a western perspective, but many of my concerns are quite commonplace for Chinese. For example the concept of fengshui is deeply seated and has been a part of my family's vocabulary since my birth. It has formed a firm and natural foundation for my world view. I am merely bravely presenting it in my work and not avoiding what is obvious to me". (Albion/Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art Ltd., Cai Guoqiang: Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky, London, UK, 2004, p. 125)

Cai contends the notions of tradition and modernity, creation and destruction, yet these are not polarized 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 yang - a balance of opposing forces that achieve harmony in nature. In accordance with the philosophical and religious perceptions upon which Taoism, fengshui and other teachings are based, Cai perceives man and the universe as a unified whole. "[I wish to] travel in time, like the fengshui 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."

Aesthetically, Cai has contributed a genuinely new and innovative approach to contemporary art-making. The furious energy of his gunpowder drawings juxtapose symbols that are significant for both Western and Eastern audiences alike. Blasting gunpowder on a four paneled screen for Eagles is practical in design yet grand in presentation. Screens have a distinct Asian component as its traditions originated in Japan for its ritualistic, decorative and functional qualities. It is also a screen of powerful yet gentle visual properties. The forms of the people and kites are evoked by a combination of pigment and explosion; people in turn emerge from the contrast of white pigment against the gunpowder that outlines their silhouettes. The techniques imbue the eye-kites with a cosmic almost decorative element that transcends a mere "realistic" or descriptive representation. The structure of the composition here 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. At the same time emphasized the gulf between human and the mighty eyes in the sky, representation of humankind's vision.
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 kite-flying and elevated it to the status of a grand metaphor for humanity and relationship with God. The eyes, symbolic of all-seeing power of God in Christianity, symbol of protection and life in ancient Egypt, appear to be looming like a curtain against the sky, almost extraterrestrial looking. Considering within the body of Cai's post-9/11 works, the mythic appearance of these eye-kites in the vast sky remind us that such relationship between god and humans, and sky and earth are as old as time itself. Cai introduces a unique concept all his own, while embracing the social context and sense of community of the project. Through his art, he introduces the common symbols and metaphysical concerns, evoking ancient and modern civilization, in order to stimulate exchanges and dialogues between humankind. As Cai recreates these ideas through his explosive art, exploring the Earth's history and civilization, he urges viewers to leave behind narrow individual perspectives and view spectacles of primordial chaos and creation, offering them new realizations about the universe, nature, and the traces of life on Earth.
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