The first Cai Guo-Qiang piece I ever saw was the Mass MoCA installation of Inopportune: Stage One (2004). In many ways, it was an awkward introduction to his work. His installations, beautiful though they are, do not lie at the heart of what he does. Because Cai Guo-Qiang likes explosives. A lot.
Cai came to mainstream prominence when he worked on the fireworks display for the Olympic Games at Bejing, but that was not how I discovered him. I was taking a Chinese art class at Vassar during my sophomore year when his work suddenly popped up on the projection screen. For two months we had been learning the spectrum of celadon glazes and the nuances of Chinese calligraphy--don't get me wrong, I loved the class, and might have ended up specializing in Asian art, had that professor not left Vassar the following year. But to visualize, as we had been for months, millennia of painstaking ink characters and forms struck from the earth evolving to the rainbow bombs on the screen was....a treat.
Inopportune: Stage One (2004), installed at Mass MoCA
Today Cai Guo-Qiang lives and works in New York City, but he studied in Shanghai and Japan and was born in Quanzhou City in 1957 to a painter and a historian. I kind of like the sense of it, the way art, pinioned in between the politics and traditions of history, gives birth to a new art, one that resists. He's a genealogical Newton's Law. In an national artistic tradition that measures and constricts, Cai embraces spontaneity. The gunpowder is the brain, the colored lights are the face.
As I said, I think that his gunpowder "paintings" are the most special of his works. It's easy to be drawn in by his firework displays, because they are both beautiful and entertaining, but you have to also watch the videos of his gunpowder painting creations. It's very like a dance: he sits quietly in some lonesome space, planning his designs with charcoal and paper. The canvas rolls out, huge like water in a great warehouse. He spreads the gunpowder, "fire medicine", in eddies and swirls, at times, I think, letting it land where it will, changing his mind and changing his patterns. Stones keep things as they are, and he lights the gun powder. From the edge of the spectacle, the work is lost to smoke, but dozens of his aids, like worker bees, rush into the fog to put out small fires and remove the heavy stones. The smoke clears, and Cai meets his creation.
Here's the thing: I love how varied Cai Guo-Qiang's work is. His fireworks are as beautiful as his installations, which are displayed perfectly with his gunpowder paintings. But there's something about his variability that doesn't sit right with me. I've loved artists before that were just as varied in their form and materials, and for me there's been something right about that variability. I just can't settle with Cai's works though. Maybe that's the point; I haven't decided yet.
Dream (2005), The Rose Art Museum, Waltham, USA