See Cai Quo-Qiang Turn El Prado’s Hall of Realms Into a Fiery Factory of Explosive Art

"The Spirit of Painting" is a rare, spectacular dip into the world of contemporary art for the Prado.

Ignition of gunpowder painting at the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Realms) Madrid, 2017 © Museo Nacional del Prado.
Ignition of gunpowder painting at the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Realms) Madrid, 2017 © Museo Nacional del Prado.

The smell of fresh gunpowder will be lingering in the air as Cai Guo-Qiang’s solo exhibition “The Spirit of Painting” opens at the Prado Museum in Madrid today. Not only does this exhibition mark the Chinese artist’s first dedicated showing of his paintings in 30 years, but it is only the second solo showby a living artist by the museum best known as the home of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children, and other treasures of Spain’s baroque golden age.

The exhibition prelude culminated this Tuesday as Cai live-painted and ignited The Spirit of Painting, a monumental new work that measures 18 meters long and three meters in height. The Chinese artist is known for this kind of epic drama within his event-based practice.

Cai Guo-Qiang and volunteers during the creation of gunpowder painting Day and Night in Toledo at the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Realms), Madrid, 2017. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Who can forget the riveting work Sky Ladder, from 2015, which entailed a 500-meter-tall ladder hanging in the sky under a giant balloon, rigged with explosives? (That work became the inspiration for a Netflix documentary of the same name.)

Ignition of gunpowder painting Day and Night in Toledo at the Salón de Reinos (Hall of Realms), Madrid, 2017. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

In the lead up to the show, Cai has transformed the Prado’s Salón de Reinos (Hall of Realms) into his temporary studio, undertaking a month-long residency. In this time, he has produced eight works on site, using local gunpowder sourced from the eastern region of Valencia. The show features 30 paintings in all.

Ignition of gunpowder painting Alchemist at the Salón de Reinos, Madrid, 2017.© Museo Nacional del Prado.

Ignition of gunpowder painting Alchemist at the Salón de Reinos, Madrid, 2017. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

The Hall of Realms was well-suited for the gunpowder-based art that Cai is so well-known for, as it served as a military museum up until the early 21st century, when it became an annex of the Prado. (Just last year, the museum announced that architect Norman Foster would direct the renovation of the Hall of Realms, which is set to begin in late 2018 and is reported to cost around $30 million.)

Cai’s new explosive works, according to the show, are inspired by his love for the “alchemist-like, miraculous feats of the Old Masters,” in particular the vaporous forms of Spanish Renaissance master El Greco. A video trailer for the show features, among other vignettes, Cai perusing the Prado galleries, seemingly absorbed in the artist’s masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), located at the Iglesia de Santo Tome in Toledo, making a charcoal sketch based on its forms.

This exhibition marks the last show organized under the directorship of outgoing Miguel Zugaza, who is taking up the position of director at Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s “The Spirit of Painting” is on view at the Prado, through March 4, 2018.


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