Artist makes a big bang in the art world

China 24

The materials he uses are unpredictable – and extremely dangerous. Yet one Chinese artist wouldn’t have it any other way.

His latest exhibit is in the U.S. state of Ohio.

CGTN’s Frances Kuo shows us how he’s making his mark in the contemporary art world.

Cai Guo-Qiang prides himself on being unconventional. He has blazed his own artistic trail by mastering the medium of gunpowder.

“The explosion can sometimes be surprisingly crazier than one would expect,” said explains Cai.  “I feel uncertain and worried all the time about losing control of it. You will never know what it will be like when you light it – this is why gunpowder is attractive and difficult to use.”

The Chinese artist is now sharing three of his creations in the U.S. state of Ohio at the Cleveland Museum of Art, world-renowned for its Chinese art collection.

“I’m not aware of any artist working with gunpowder, whether Chinese or international, so I think it’s a unique medium to work with and that makes his works of art also very unique,” said Clarissa von Spee, Curator of Chinese Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The inspiration for one of Cai’s works was a major environmental disaster in the U.S.

Starting from the 1860s, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had long been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste, one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. at the time.

But media attention on a 1969 blaze and the dozen fires before it became a catalyst for national action. The U.S. Congress later passed landmark legislation that established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, Cai is marking the fire’s 50th anniversary with a winding version of the Cuyahoga, an example of Feng Shui where its energy and flow can change according to the whims of society.

“You can see in this meandering bend, the so-called dragon veins, they’re the life energy that pulsates through the universe,” said von Spee.  “And if the water in a waterway is polluted or stagnant, it means it has an effect on the life of the city.”

The 1969 fire happened far from Cai’s native country. But he says it has just as much resonance.

“Industrialization has brought huge environmental changes, which are the problems that the U.S. faced 50 years ago,” said Cai.  “China nowadays faces similar problems.  Presenting gunpowder hints how human beings would lose control when expanding industries. It is an opportunity to reflect on this issue, to Cleveland, to the United States, and to the whole world.” 

Cai doesn’t just experiment with gunpowder.  Perhaps his most famous work goes beyond this museum where he also made quite a bang on an international stage.”

Cai wowed the world with his spectacular fireworks at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But it’s the power of explosions that draws him the most.

“The sudden energy change in explosion fascinates me,” said Cai.  “Although an explosion is only a brief moment, it delivers a sense of eternity.”

Cai aims to deliver a sense of environmental consciousness.

His second work presents a jarring message about the fragility of the world around us and the consequences of human actions.

“There are some indications that something is unbalanced, that the planet is degenerating,” explains von Spee.

“This one is colorful, showing a scenario of a carnival,” said Cai.  “Many animals are mating with other species. Besides them, there are angels in Baroque-age style. It symbolizes carpe diem as human beings’ natural instinct.”

But Cai’s third piece offers solace, presenting nature in perfect harmony.

“Using gunpowder to illustrate environmental problems is meaningful: gunpowder is not only applied in war but can also create art and aesthetic and beautiful things,” said Cai.  “Unlike a lawyer or judge who points out what’s right or wrong, artists can deliver the era’s problems or its hope.”