Whitehot Magazine

May 2012: Cai Guo-Qiang @ The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mystery Circle explosion event, realized on site at The Geffen Contemporary, The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, 2012
Photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder
The Geffen Contemporary
MOCA - The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
April 8 to July 30, 2012

There’s no need for hyperbole to describe the work of Chinese born, New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang. His art is a blast -- explosive and incendiary in a literal sense. With gunpowder as his preferred artistic medium, Cai’s work is inherently dramatic, even potentially dangerous. For the opening of Sky Ladder, the artist’s first west coast solo exhibit, Cai staged the spectacular outdoor debut of Mystery Circle, an explosive event, outside the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. In case of rogue sparks, Los Angeles Fire Department trucks were staked outside the perimeter of the adjacent parking lot where thousands of Angelenos clamored for admission to view the artistic spectacle from behind a chain link fence, as a prelude to viewing the artist’s epic drawings and installations inside the museum.

As the sun began to set, Cai gave a theatrical countdown, and lit the fuse to ignite a four-stage extravaganza of fireworks. The latest in Cai’s Projects for Extraterrestrials series that began in 1989 and has since included more than 30 works, the site-specific work was created for MOCA. It involved 40,000 rockets, as well as other pyrotechnics, which exploded in a series of startling blasts, leaving behind a pattern like crop circles -- like those that have mysteriously appeared on grain fields around the world in recent decades -- and the burned imprint of an alien god on the northern exterior wall of the museum.  

It’s conceivable that such theatrical delivery might overshadow the impact of the final work. Not in this case. Beyond the excitement, the dazzle, and fire of the artist’s process, what’s compelling is how effectively he expresses his vision through the carefully realized detail of his finished pieces. Cai’s art reflects his fascination with hidden forces in the physical and metaphysical world, and echoes his interest in cosmological phenomena. The artist considers time and space to be one entity, because the Chinese word for universe, yuzhou, is an amalgam of space (yu) and time (zhou).

Obviously, gunpowder is a volatile medium. Cai calls his work in gunpowder, “unpredictable splendor,”but in the years since 1985, after completing his studies, when he began experimenting with explosives, the artist has mastered his chosen medium, learning to control it with finesse. Apparently, the medium has become predictable for him, as he extracts from it a fascinating style of symbolic and often narrative imagery. Transcending the barriers of “time and space,” Cai grapples with themes like the forces of nature, and their impact on humanity through the ages. His inspiration comes form various sources, including Chinese history and medicine, feng shui, modern astrophysics, and space travel, as well as his interest in natural and supernatural phenomena.


Mural from Mystery Circle explosion event, The Geffen Contemporary, The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, 2012
Photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

In early March, the artist worked with more than 100 local volunteers to create three breathtaking new gunpowder images of immense scale, also commissioned by MOCA for this exhibition. Videos in the back room of the Geffen exhibit space show the process, an elaborate form of fumage, behind the finished pieces. The artist starts by creating stencils, many of which he draws freehand using a long tool with a charcoal tip, as he walks on a huge sheet of cardboard on the floor. Volunteers cut out the stencils, which are then arranged under Cai’s supervision on a ground of canvas or paper. Then, the artist applies different grades and colors of gunpowder, like dry pigment, around the stencils, and the entire canvas is covered with cardboard anchored down to contain the explosions. Cai lights the fuses, and seconds later, there is a rally of blasts. The room fills with smoke as the concealed images are indelibly created with fire.

Cai’s early experiments with gunpowder ended by unintentionally burning up the canvas. Today, the process is carefully orchestrated to prevent such mishaps. After the smoke dissipates, the team scurries around beating away any excess flame. The finished images capture something of the spontaneity and excitement of the process. His lines are lyrical and dynamic, as in the swirling shapes of Chaos in Nature, (approx. 11 x 49 feet) in which Cai depicts the essence of natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. Within this piece are strokes that appear vibrant with movement. The resulting colors are a range of charcoal, sienna and umber (burnt as opposed to raw, of course).

In Desire for Zero Gravity, also on canvas, (approx. 11 x 39 feet) the artist chronicles man’s daring efforts to defy gravity through history.  In sections, reminiscent of traditional Chinese scroll painting, Cai depicts the story of the 16th-century Chinese official Wan Hu, who in a quest to catapult himself into outer space, perished on his homemade rocket chair. Hu is surrounded by images of rockets, wings and other mechanical contraptions humans have used to try to escape gravity’s pull. In another jibe at the rules of gravity, the installation piece, Crop Circle, is suspended from the ceiling. Indentations in the piece, which is constructed from reed, mimic the shapes of crop circles as observed from above. Cai manipulates the viewer, forcing us to gaze upwards, so that we physically experience an inversion of the universe of time and space.

The third and largest gunpowder drawing produced for this exhibit, Childhood Spaceship, (13 feet high x 108 feet long) on Japanese hemp paper, includes images of symbols, figures and memories that have triggered the artist’s interest throughout his life. Among the figurative fragments is the facsimile of the front page from a San Diego newspaper. Here and there, bits of text appear, such as the words, “I want to believe.”Cai’s work is captivating. Impressive for the originality of his method and medium, it’s also riveting for the scope of his vision, and the beauty and vast scale of his pieces.

Born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China, Cai moved to Shanghai in 1981 to study theater design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. After spending nearly a decade in Tokyo (1986-95) he moved to New York City where he currently lives and works. The exhibit was curated by MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and MOCA Associate Curator Rebecca Morse, in close collaboration with Cai Guo-Qiang.


  Cai Guo-Qiang in front of Desire for Zero Gravity, Los Angeles, 2012
photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

Follow Whitehot on Instagram

Follow Whitehot on Twitter



view all articles from this author