Cai Guo-Quiang's exploding art

Chinese artist brings creative destruction to middle east art gallery
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Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's latest exhibition Saraab at the Mathaf Museum in Doha, Qatar, doesn't open until December 5 but it’s already got off to a characteristically explosive start. In preparation for the opening of the gallery, Guo-Quiang invited local residents to join him in the creation of a series of 'gunpowder drawings' which will form part of what will be his first solo show in the Middle East. Check out the video for an incredible taste of what he does.

The show (which will run until May 26, 2012) explores Guo-Qiang's fascination with the historical relationship between China and the Middle East. It includes his iconic gunpowder paintings, an installation of 60 rocks with Koranic inscriptions (inspired by the Arabic inscribed tombstones around his hometown of Quanzhou on the South East coast of China), documentary videos and an 18-metre long porcelain mural. His new gunpowder drawings, made by laying gunpowder on canvas and then igniting it, trace the sea routes of the ancient Silk Road from Arabia to Quanzhou which was once a major hub for trading silk, tea, spices and porcelain. 

Cai Guo-Quiang, <em>Saraab</em> (2011)Cai Guo-Quiang blows up drawings made from gunpowder for Saraab (2011)

He told Phaidon he started working on his gunpowder paintings around the mid-eighties: “The fundamental idea behind my work has been to borrow power from nature. Sometimes I’d take rubbings of rocks or tree roots on canvas before painting it. Sometimes I’d put gunpowder on the canvas and have some kind of explosion on top of that. The idea was always to derive energy from nature. Out of that came the idea of investigating the accidental, that which cannot be controlled. This was a release from the repression and pressure that I felt around me. It was also an attempt to distance myself from traditional Chinese art, which is very much concerned with controlled form. I wanted to investigate both the destructive and constructive nature of gunpowder, and to look at how destruction can create something as well.”

Cai Guo-Quiang, <em>Saraab</em> (2011)One of the gunpowder drawings produced by Cai Guo-Quiang for Saraab (2011)

In the Fujian province where Guo-Qiang was born there’s an important Chinese army base. As a child he grew up watching fighter planes streak overhead and the sound of shells exploding was common.

“Yes, and moreover, in China every significant social occasion of any kind, good or bad – weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home – is marked by the explosion of fireworks. Fireworks are like the town crier, announcing whatever’s going on in town. Gunpowder was invented in China as a by product of alchemy. It is still called ‘fire medicine’ because it was accidentally created during an attempt to produce a medicine.”

The artist once placed himself at the centre of a field in Germany around which explosives were installed in concentric circles. He was wired up to heart and brain wave monitors and the fuse lit.

“I was interested in comparing the physiological effects before, during and after the explosion. After, everyone was nervous; people were concerned whether I was still there, unharmed in the middle of all the smoke, but I was fine. There were scientists there who thought I practiced yoga  or some kind of meditation, because my heart rate was more or less the same just before and soon after the explosion. During the explosion itself I recited a passage from Lao Zi, and it felt to me like the beginning of time, the birth of the universe.” 

In 2008 Guo-Quiang was the subject of a retrospective show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and in the same year was Director of Visual Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing - putting his pyrotechnical skills to good use. 

Take a tour of the gallery with curator Rajeev Gopinadh as the museum prepares for the opening of Saraab on December 5.


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