I hope it's visible from Washington Square.
September 14, 2003
Public Art Both Violent and Gorgeous
By HOLLAND COTTER
Wu Hong HongCai Guo-Qiang's works have included "Transient Rainbow," for the opening of the Museum of Modern Art's temporary home in Queens last year.
An artist's rendering of "Light Cycle," planned for tomorrow night in Central Park.
I PRACTICALLY jumped out of my shoes when the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang finished a drawing in a borrowed Long Island studio earlier this summer. I wasn't shocked because the results were fabulous but because the final touch involved gunpowder, a lighted fuse, a bang and an orange flash.
Tomorrow night, if all goes as planned, Mr. Cai will complete another drawing with explosives, but this one on a colossal scale in the sky over Central Park. The fireworks display, titled "Light Cycle," is to start at 7:45 from five points in the park between the Heckscher ball fields near 64th Street and the North Meadow at 98th Street, producing luminous pillars, a 1,000-foot halo over the Reservoir and a cascade of flares. The entire performance, months in preparation, should last about five minutes.
Mr. Cai his full name is pronounced sigh gwo chang is one of several artists from China who gained international attention during the 1990's, and one of the few who has sustained the momentum. He has been using gunpowder as an art medium for years. With it, in 1993, he created a six-mile-long "wall of fire" extending west from the end of the Great Wall of China in the Gobi Desert.
In Hiroshima, Japan, in 1994, he attached packets of gunpowder to more than 100 helium balloons suspended in a spiral over the city. They were linked together by a fuse that ran down to a pit dug in the ground near the Atom Bomb memorial. The effect, when the fuse was lighted, was of fiery energy sucked into the earth, a mushroom cloud in reverse.
Last fall, for the inauguration of the Museum of Modern Art's temporary home in Queens, he designed a bridge of light that, for a few dazzling moments, arched over the East River. As magical as the image was, it had a somber aspect, as many of Mr. Cai's projects do. It referred to Sept. 11.
"I gave the city a rainbow, a symbol that comes after the storm," said Mr. Cai, who has lived in New York since 1995, in an e-mail message. Similar thinking underlies "Light Cycle." Commissioned by Creative Time, a nonprofit public-art agency, in cooperation with the city of New York and the Central Park Conservancy, the piece celebrates the park's 150th anniversary and is a metaphor for its seasonal cycles. At the same time, Mr. Cai also intends images of violent energy transformed into beauty to have a protective function for the city, to lie "like amulets over the heart of Manhattan."
The Museum of Modern Art piece last year went off without a hitch, but not all of the gunpowder projects have fared so well. There have been mistakes and accidents. In the case of a 1998 piece for Stockholm titled "Parting of the Sea," the long fuse stretched across a wide body of water sputtered out, leaving thousands of people with nothing to look at. Days before the opening of the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennale in Australia, the pyrotechnic factory Mr. Cai was working with blew up, destroying his piece. (A hot line, 800-895-7780, will carry news of any "Light Cycle" changes.)
For tomorrow night's production, Mr. Cai has enlisted the expert assistance of Fireworks by Grucci, the Long Island-based pyrotechnics firm that has developed a technology of gunpowder shells guided by programmable microchips. "Light Cycle" will be set off by the push of a laptop key rather than with a match.
Even if the Central Park piece is a washout, though, the conceptual ambition behind Mr. Cai's art, with its spacious, macrocosmic, even galactic view of the world, is never in doubt.
Over the years he has created a long series of gunpowder works titled "Projects for Extraterrestrials," to which the Great Wall and Hiroshima pieces, as well as "Light Cycle," belong. Each is intended to be seen from outer space, "from the perspective of the universe," Mr. Cai says. A second series, "Projects for Humans," consists of proposals to be realized on various celestial bodies for the viewing pleasure of earthlings. A fireworks version of the Great Wall rippling across the moon is one pie-in-the-sky example.
For all its imaginative breadth, Mr. Cai's art is also grounded in history, or histories, including the history of gunpowder. By some accounts, the flammable substance was invented by the Chinese as a byproduct of an alchemical search for immorality, and was regarded as a medicine, a kind of cosmic stimulant. Exported to Europe, however, it became the basis of the new science of weaponry and was eventually used against, and by, China itself.
Such developments have personal resonance for Mr. Cai, an artist who has spent a career negotiating between Chinese and Western cultures and considers himself "in self-imposed exile from both."
He was born in 1957 in the southern city of Quanzhou, the port from which the explorer Marco Polo began his return trip from China to Venice in the 13th century. From childhood, Mr. Cai remembers the sound of fireworks going off, as they do to celebrate any auspicious occasion. He also remembers the sound of artillery fire from a nearby army base, directed at the island of Taiwan, which lay across the strait.
His father, who worked in a state-run bookstore, fit the classic type of the scholar-artist: he was a landscape painter, practiced calligraphy and revered Chinese history. Implicit in his reverence and fundamental to traditional Chinese art is the belief that the finest human accomplishments are to be found in the past rather than to be hoped for in the future.
Mr. Cai, growing up in an era of cyclonic social change, followed a more rebellious model. He spent his teenage years immersed in martial arts and even starred in some Bruce Lee-type films. He was intrigued by contemporary Western art that he saw reproduced in magazines, from oil painting to Conceptualism, with its anything-goes freedom. But finding no art school that taught it, he enrolled at the Shanghai Drama Institute to study stage design, a collaborative medium emphasizing space, light, ephemeral time-based effects and audience response.
A Western-influenced Chinese avant-garde began to coalesce in the mid-1980's, but, unwilling to align himself with any group, he kept his distance. While his peers were producing politically pointed Pop paintings and installations, he took to hiking through the desolate Silk Road stretches of northwest China near Tibet, visiting archaeological sites, studying nature and painting portraits of people he met.
In 1984, he began to experiment with lighted gunpowder in paintings and drawings, letting the medium's unpredictability loosen up his ingrained formal control. What he was making at the time were essentially prototypes of the large drawing an abstract bridgelike image seared with fire onto paper that I saw him complete at Grucci's Long Island plant this summer.
He produces a fair number of such "burn" drawings. They remain important to him, he says, as "an extension of my childhood dream of being a painter." They are also the most collectible and exhibitable works by an artist who for the most part trafficks in evanescent materials. (An exhibition of the gunpowder studies he made for "Light Cycle" is on view at the Asia Society and Museum through Dec. 14.)
And it was ephemeral art explosion events, performances, installations that made his name. This happened in 1986, after he visited Japan, where he ended up living for nine years. There he developed, among other things, the "Projects for Extraterrestrials." By the early 1990's, he was gaining an international audience, though largely for noncombustible projects.
In a piece titled "Bring to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot" for the 1995 Venice Biennale, he transported an old-fashioned Chinese junk stocked with herbal medicines from Quanzhou to Italy, then sailed it up the Grand Canal on the 700th anniversary of the Italian explorer's return from the East.
"Cultural Melting Bath: Project for the 20th Century" at the Queens Museum of Art in 1997, his first New York solo show, consisted of a communal Jacuzzi with herb-infused water set in a circle of Chinese garden rocks. In an installation visually more arresting than it may sound, the rocks were arranged on the geomantic principles of feng shui to facilitate a flow of harmonious energy through an ethnically diverse city.
He took some heat for his 1999 Biennale contribution. Titled "Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard," it was a replica of a Social Realist sculptural tableau made in China in the 1960's. Pure anticapitalist agitprop, the original acquired near-religious sanctity during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Cai won the Biennale's Golden Lion award but drew official ire from China, where he was accused of disrespecting a national icon and pandering to a Western appetite for exoticism.
Charges of Orientalism, of perpetuating "Eastern" stereotypes, have also been leveled at the gunpowder pieces. But Mr. Cai refers to his art as "supranational" and insists that it reflects his own past, which included an immersion in Western culture. "Seen from the Eastern perspective, I am actually quite Western," he says. "Since childhood my education has been based on dialectic training in Marxism."
At the same time, his attitude toward Western art, as toward virtually everything else, is elusive and contradictory. The first gunpowder-related piece he did in the United States, a photographic series titled "The Century With Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century" (1996), is a kind of mock-homage to the invasive, nature-altering 1970's earthworks of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, to whom he is sometimes compared. And a 1996 photograph of him igniting a hand-held explosive while facing the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center from across the Hudson can be read as a provocative take on the mercurial character of power, even to people to whom earth art means nothing.
What may be less accessible to a Western audience is the Asian side of the East-West equation in Mr. Cai's art, his Daoist Conceptualism. The volatile nature of gunpowder itself embodies a Daoist principle of cosmic energy sparked by the meeting of opposites: physically, minerals and fire; metaphysically, order and chaos, wholeness and fragmentation; nature and culture; creation and destruction, certainty and chance.
"I am looking for the unchanging through the always changing," Mr. Cai says. "The changes in nature are always changing, but the fact of change or evolution never does."
The dynamic of control and accident in the gunpowder pieces suggests the tension of discipline and spontaneity associated with calligraphy, that most honored of Chinese art forms. And calligraphy is intimately associated with the role of the scholar-artist, an identity that Mr. Cai once rejected but has come to accept for himself. This identity, with its model of the artist as a perpetual "amateur," untainted by professional ties, may in part explain why Mr. Cai, along with émigré artists like Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, has so far largely chosen to avoid gallery representation in a favor of a freelance status, working on commission for institutional or festival events.
A project planned with the Pompidou Center in Paris to create a "Chinese" fireworks tower to set beside and match in size the Eiffel Tower is one such event. "Light Cycle" is another. "The nature of the gunpowder project is especially significant at this time and in this city," he says. "The same materials can be used for destruction and terror, but can also be used constructively and beautifully as a creative and healing power."
Mr. Cai is well aware, however, that such events might easily be viewed as mere exercises in optical thrills, art-by-command, like court fetes. In fact, for him the real risk is less in the combustible chemistry of his work than in "the ceremonial banality of the materials, the entertainment quality, the expectations and flashiness brought by employing high-tech production." But he proceeds anyway, trying to mine something unexpected from expectations, ignite a chemical reaction between flashiness and illumination.
Whether you take Mr Cai as a showman or a philosopher, who would want to do without an artist who proposes turning the Grand Canyon into a terrestrial Milky Way? Or who, in 1999, came up with a project that called for everyone on earth to extinguish their lights for the second before and the second after the change of millennium, so that a strung-out planet could, however briefly, "eclipse into oblivion," and recoup some strength?
This is the stuff of a visionary, but unmystical art; complex in ideas, but tailored to a universal citizenry. In a world where politics, culture and nature are all unstable compounds, and everyone lives tensed in expectation of the next Big Bang, such art, like a throw of the I Ching, comes across as a judicious but exhilarating act of faith in the benignity of the unknown.
For Lunar New Year, Cai Guo-Qiang sent a fireworks dragon across the Thames and to the top of the Tate Modern in London.
Video: Light Cycle Drawings by Cai Guo-Qiang
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
I hope it's visible from Washington Square.
I hope it's visible from Giants Stadium.
I wish it was visible from Geneva.