The Explosive Process of Cai Guo-Qiang

Wednesday night, internationally-known Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang will ignite the 162 foot-long gunpowder drawing that he and a team of volunteers have been preparing for several days. The resulting artwork, composed of 42 10-foot panels will become the permanent wall covering for the new Arts of China Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to be unveiled on October 17.

The ignition will take place at a specially-prepared warehouse near Reliant Stadium, and Art Attack will be there to document and report.

But yesterday we sat down with Cai (and translator Chinyan Wong) during a break to discuss the project and get some background on his process.

On how he came to use gunpowder:

"Back in the early 1980s, as a young man, I wanted to sort of liberate myself a little, and gunpowder seemed to be a suitable medium. It's also my rebellious attitude toward the society at the time. In my youth I was also deeply influenced by my father, who is a classical Chinese painter, and I felt my persona was very similar to my father's, which was overly cautious. As a painter, that won't do, because you won't be able to create paintings with any grandeur, so it was a way to develop my artistic style."

"When I was starting off, I was trying to restrain myself, especially when I'm trying to depict subjects that are often seen in traditional Chinese painting--for example, the rocks and the flora and the vegetation in the drawing. I'm trying to relate back to Chinese culture, so the general public can understand where I'm coming from and the sources I'm inspired by. The artist has to understand where he is coming from. Once everyone is done helping make the stencils, then I'll start applying gunpowder. In this part of the process there's more control and restraint, but later on as I use gunpowder, there will be more spontaneity and uncontrollability."

"When you contemplate what happens in the world in our personal matters, there's too much logic, and we're trying to organize this logic all the time. For example, in art history there's this East/West argument, and it's just too much to think about. And contemporary vs. ancient art. A lot of people, they feel that contemporary art is very inaccessible and difficult to understand, so this is an opportunity for the artist to bring the creative process closer to people. In the end, this explosion allows the art to speak for itself."

The allure:

"It is very attractive to me. It's a process where simultaneously there's destruction and construction. I'm trying to depict very beautiful subject matter, like flowers and chrysanthemums, but how do you use the very violent force to create something that's very delicate and beautiful? It's a challenge. If I were to create the big bang or the sun in a gunpowder drawing, that would be relatively easy, but to make beautiful flowers--that's more difficult. So this antagonistic quality is very enticing for me."

"With typical fireworks, [the image] appears in the sky, and it disappears very quickly. With a gunpowder drawing, it's like trying to retain the scorch of the fireworks, the scorch in the sky and retain it on paper."

"I still haven't completely learned how to control the outcome, and that's what keeps bringing me back to gunpowder. For example, in parts of the drawing, the wall's blank; it's all white. With the distant mountains, I'm trying to keep it very faint and light, but if I don't apply enough gunpowder, that part won't ignite. I'm hoping that smoke from the explosion will travel across the drawing."

It's a meticulously prepared setup followed by a chain reaction, but it ain't dominoes:

"With dominoes you can anticipate which direction they're going to collapse, but with this you have no idea."

Is it performance?

"What makes this different from a typical performance is that in normal performance art there's a grasp on the rhythm, and the artist will interact with the audience in some way or try to engage them, whereas here, the artist does whatever he's supposed to be doing. He could be going to the toilet or taking interviews from the press, and the audience is left by themselves. And they can choose to come and go as they please. But they'll be able to be part of the emotional journey of the artist--for example, when I'm indecisive or wavering with anxiety and anticipation for the final result."

"With typical performances, you can expect how it will turn out in the end, and you know that the artist is in the process of reaching the end. Whereas with this gunpowder drawing, like the artist, they don't know how it will turn out either, so they share some of the worries and the fears the artist has. Or they look forward to the result as much as the artist does. The museum is braver than the artist for taking on this risk. (laughs) Perhaps after the explosion, everything is burned, after they've invited everyone from the public, the press, TV stations, and the fact that they've put a hard date on the opening, saying it will open to public on October 17. So this one project ties everyone, from the audience, to the public, to the artist, to the museum, all together. And they all share the same fate."

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