In a downtown L.A. warehouse recently, the New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang paced atop a gigantic scroll of hemp paper, unfurled and placed on the floor. The paper was overlaid with cardboard stencils, and over them, he sprinkled gunpowder like a chef fretting over his latest dish. "Audience, are we ready?" Kelly Ma, Cai’s staff assistant, said. A crowd of nearly 300 huddled closer. The faint stench of sulfur hung in the air.
Tall and slim and solemn, Cai, 54, approached the fuse that snaked along his latest work of art and lit it with a stick of burning incense. Ssss…..BAMBAMBAM! The gunpowder exploded in flashes of bright, orange light, then dispersed into wispy puffs of smoke, as a small army of volunteers dressed in gloves, goggles, and booties rushed in to put out stray flares. Thus was born Childhood Spaceship, one of three new gunpowder drawings Cai created for a recently concluded one-man show at the Geffen Contemporary of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.
Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder is the latest notch on Cai’s belt. He has had retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bilbao, and the National Museum of China. He curated the first Chinese Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. He also directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He is the ultimate international artist, connecting fireworks, an ancient Chinese tradition, to the modern, Western tradition of abstract expressionism. In Cai’s hands, East and West don’t just meet, they ignite each other. "They can be anything from my grandmother to the image of Einstein, to the image of Stephen Hawking to feng shui and Chinese medicine," Cai told Co.Design, when asked about his influences. "All these have formed my view of the universe."
The MOCA show took its name from a project Cai conceived in the 1990s in which he planned to ignite a 1,640-foot-tall ladder (that’s nearly 400 feet taller than the Empire State Building) then watch it burn uninhibited in the sky. "This ladder is a spiritual metaphor that allows me to have a dialogue with unseen worlds," Cai said through an interpreter. Alas, the ladder was a pipe dream—imagine any officials in L.A., a city of raging brushfires and the supernatural Santa Ana winds, approving such a thing—so Cai had to find other ways of communing with "unseen worlds." Perhaps that’s why this latest exhibit included crop circles installed on the museum’s ceiling and mysterious alien figures scorched onto MOCA’s wall the night before the show’s opening.
Cai’s three new gunpowder artworks all share a philosophical man’s-small-place-in-the-universe theme. Chaos in Nature is an 11-foot-by-49-foot canvas that attempts to capture the uncontrollable forces of nature on paper. It is a swirling mass of black and brown, with Rorschach glimpses of tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. Zero Gravity is an 11-foot-by-39-foot visualization of man’s cockamamie attempts at flight, with Wan Hu, a 16th-century Chinese official who tied rockets to his chair in an attempt to fly, seated in the middle. "NASA named a crater after him," Cai said, with a smile. Childhood Spaceship, used more than 100 detailed stencils his volunteers cut out under his direction.
This was Cai’s first time using extremely detailed cutouts. "He usually uses gunpowder very freehandedly to express a very natural energy," his translator, Chinyan Wong, said. But with "Childhood Spaceship," he wanted to revisit all the physical objects that sparked his exploration of the unknown.
This level of detail demanded even more control over the fireworks. "I worry about the outcome of the drawing because I put a lot of gunpowder in the middle and when it burns, there’ll be a lot of energy," Cai said. "The amount of energy you cannot anticipate and they may burn too much. If I use too little, there won’t be enough smoke generated. I won’t be able to capture all the detail. Throughout the process, I’m trying to decide one way or the other."