When a large-scale explosion happens, the impact at the moment of the explosion creates a sense of momentary chaos. It distorts time, space, one's sense of existence and of those around you. It has an impact both biologically and spiritually. It creates many possibilities and somehow also pauses time. It is a flash-like moment that also creates a sense of eternity.
- Cai Guu Qiang ('Cai Guo-Qiang Chronology', Cai Guo-Qiang Hanging Out in the Museum, p. 289.)
Gunpowder-in Chinese, " huo-yao," literally, "fire medicine"-is one of the four great inventions of ancient China, and as it spread around the world in the Middle Ages, it made significant contributions to the advance of civilization and to economic and technological development. In the art of Cai Guoqiang, however, we return to the notion of gunpowder as a fiery "medicine," one discovered by ancient Chinese alchemists in their repeated attempts to find the elixir of life that would free them from the ravages of aging. Later, of course, gunpowder's role would have more to do with its destructive potential as a weapon, but its original discovery arose from the desire for life and the fear of death. Cai Guoqiang, in a return to ancient Eastern philosophy, has since the 1980s made gunpowder his artistic medium, from which he has developed unique expressive forms and vocabularies, and in a variety of large-scale outdoor projects, he has explored cultural differences and the way value judgments change according to circumstance. Cai's UFO and Shrine in the Sky derives from a project he carried out in 2002 at the Obihiro Racetrack in Hokkaido Japan at the invitation of the Tokachi International Contemporary Art Exhibition. Cai says, "Working in Europe and the United States, I think of social issues, but in Japan, I don't know why, but I think of the universe." Cai here combines elements of explosions, land art, installations, performance art, calligraphy, and conceptual art. With a fuse running counter-clockwise around a white, UFO-shaped tent structure 30 meters in diameter, Cai ignited the 30-second long gunpowder blast event, which he later said was one of his most successful gunpowder events. The UFO and Shrine in the Sky (Lot 1031) featured in this Evening Sale was created by the artist the following year, based on the 2002 event in Japan. In UFO and Shrine in the Sky, the artist borrows implications from Eastern philosophy to present, in a way that crosses into the region between religion and myth, his insights on humanity, the natural world, and supernatural forces.
Anthropologist Franz Boas pointed out that humanity displays a special affinity for creating myths in which animals, heavenly bodies, and other natural images appear, but without images of man himself. He believed this was because "the first object of consciousness is not the self, but all things visible outside the self; that is, anything that exists under the sun or emits light in the darkness." At first glance, "UFO" and "shrine" may not appear related at all, but by means of his gunpowder art Cai uncovers the common mythological elements connecting the two. The UFO represents the supernatural forces of the universe, while shrines are structures erected by humans, the means by which humans attempt to communicate with deities. In the moment that Cai ignites the gunpowder explosion, the gulf between history and mythology, between human and deity, seems to break down, and we are returned to the mythical age before the arrival of civilization when, according to the poem by Qu Yuan from the "Chu Language" section of his classic "The Nation's Language," "people were together with the gods, and did not seek to usurp their place."
The slight tilt of the UFO in Cai's UFO and Shrine in the Sky helps convey a feeling of motion, while the surrounding brownish tints, traces of the gunpowder blast, resemble the friction trails of high-speed motion through the atmosphere. Perhaps this is what was referred to in Volume One of the ancient Chinese "Record of Heretofore Lost Works":
In the 30th year of the Emperor Yao, a huge ship was seen in the Western sea. Its lights glowed at night but were extinguished during the day. The lights often changed size, sometimes huge and sometimes small; the ship floated above the sea. It appeared at the same place after the 12-year cycleKwinged men lived on the shipKthere were countless sightings of the ship. People who went out to sea often talked about the miraculous ship.
Myths were condensations of the pantheistic beliefs of ancient peoples, embodying their early understanding of their world and the universe around them. As written language and mathematics advanced, awareness of the motion of the stars and planets inspired a shift consciousness, and an ordered concept of the universe took the place of myth. Astronomical cycles came to symbolize the order of the spiritual world; recorded stories about gods and spirits revealed mankind's desire to take flight and reflected their views of their world and the existence of the universe. The Chinese legend of "Chang-E flying to the moon" derives from these kinds of fantasies about the moon, while media artist Paik Nam June, in Rocketship to Virtual Venus (Lot 1028), speaks to us about our curiosity toward outer space and our exploration of it. Cai Guoqiang's giant UFO, beyond posing questions about whether supernatural forces exist, manifests the deep connection between human beings and their environment that is revealed in ancient myths. And we, who as members of advanced technological civilizations have gradually forgotten our myths, are made to once again feel our smallness in the face of the unknowable mysteries of the universe.
Cai's UFO and Shrine in the Sky was a project he carried out at the Obihiro Racetrack in Hokkaido, Japan, for the Tokachi International Contemporary Art Exhibition. The red aviary at its side became a symbol of traditional Japanese religions; the Japanese Shinto faith is a pantheistic, polytheistic belief system, in which spirits of the natural world are worshipped along with ancestors. Cai Guoqiang has said, "My religious concepts aren't brought out that clearly, but each of my works, to some extent or another, has that feeling behind it. Regardless of whether it's a gunpowder piece or an installation, I always seek a dialogue with the unseen, and what I mean by the 'unseen' is supra-real forces, the forces of the universe, of the soul, the arbiters of our fate." Though the work is entitled UFO and Shrine in the Sky, the UFO image is the sole symbol of supernatural forces to appear within it; if a shrine is in essence a cathedral or a temple, then although they may be home to different rites representing different religions, each of them represents a medium or channel through which humanity communes with the supernatural. Religious concepts are deeply rooted, and the sites of religious worship are integral parts of our lives, making it unnecessary to present any image here, when gunpowder can awaken in our hearts the sense of reverence and reliance on the supernatural, and evoke the sense of worship.
UFO and Shrine in the Sky is a continuation of the concepts represented by Cai's Project for Extraterrestrials series, in which the artist imputes a humanistic and mythologizing ethos to traditional Chinese cosmology of natural law. Though the moment of the gunpowder blast soon passes, we instinctively interpret the various metaphors and symbols connected with gunpowder, shrines, and UFOs, and the messages contained in ancient myths call to us across time, leading us back toward the ancient Daoist thought at the time gunpowder was first invented. We discover the self, participate in life and death, experience the sacred, and briefly contact the eternal.