‘Gunpowder Is Epic and Heroic, But Used for Such Destruction’: Watch How Artist Cai Guo-Qiang Makes His Controlled Explosions

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Cai Guo-Qiang at the Museum of Art Pudong, 2021. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Cai Guo-Qiang at the Museum of Art Pudong, 2021. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

“Why is it important,” Cai Guo-Qiang asks, “to make violent explosions beautiful?” It is a question that the Chinese artist poses, though doesn’t necessarily answer, in his works, which often take the form of semi-controlled explosions or painting with gunpowder.

“My work is sometimes like the poppy flower,” the artist told Art21 as part of its Art in the Twenty-First Century series. “It has this almost romantic side, but yet it also represents a poison.” This contradiction is inherent in Cai’s practice, which he began as an act of resistance against the strict rules around both artistic production and the broader social climate in China.

After living in Japan for almost a decade, Cai began to use gunpowder, developing controlled explosive events that demonstrate the “grand ideas about the cosmos,” he explains in the video. A volatile substance, gunpowder is “epic and heroic, but at the same time it’s used for such destruction,” he says. 

The ignition of Explosion Studio by Cai Guo-Qiang at the Amphitheater of Pompeii in February 2019. Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

The ignition of Explosion Studio by Cai Guo-Qiang at the Amphitheater of Pompeii in February 2019. Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

In the video, which originally aired in 2005, Cai discusses his exhibition at Mass MoCA, which took place the previous year and featured many works created in the aftermath of 9/11, reflecting on catastrophic events, violence, and explosions. Cai described the exhibition, titled “Inopportune,” as “like a long scroll unfolding,” addressing themes of transportation and repetition, nodding to the continuous cycle of life.

Right now at the newly opened New Museum of Art Pudong, in Shanghai, Cai is being feted with the exhibition “Odyssey and Homecoming,” featuring a kinetic light work commissioned by the museum and a survey of earlier works. The show is divided into two parts. The first, “Odyssey,” is dedicated to past works from exhibitions around the world in which the artist engaged with the history of Western art, hegemony, and colonization. The second part of the show, “Homecoming,” consists of new works that combine aspects of traditional Chinese art and culture with Cai’s ongoing interest in the cosmos.

 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Cai Guo-Qiang: Odyssey and Homecoming” is on view at the Museum of Art Pudong through March 7, 2022.


This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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