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Physics and Metaphysics
The explosive installations, actions, and drawings of Cai Guo-Qiang



99 wolves race towards a glass wall. The animals leap in the air, pressing forward as though they were about to crash into the wall. Head On is the title of Cai Guo-Qiang’s dynamic installation, which is on show at the Deutsche Guggenheim starting August 26, 2006. The work is accompanied by a large-scale gunpowder drawing and the video projection of Illusion II. For this spectacular action in the middle of Berlin, Cai had an entire house blown up by brightly colorful fireworks. In her essay, Brigitte Werneburg critically examines the Chinese art star’s work.



Preparation of the installation "Head On", 2006, at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy Cai Studio

In early July, a cute little one-family house was suddenly standing on the empty lot at Anhalter Bahnhof, built by the Babelsberg Film Studios; on July 11, 2006, it became apparent that the house was indeed meant to serve as a prop for a film – the day Cai Guo-Qiang blew it up with a spectacular array of colorful fireworks for his action Illusion II. Now, in his recently opened one-person show Head On at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, the explosion can be seen in a wall-sized dual projection.



Illusion II: Explosion Project, Berlin 2006
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy Cai Studio

While the Chinese artist, who has been living and working in New York since 1995, spoke of the conflict the spectacle evokes as his audience experiences "both the beauty and destruction of the fireworks," these same viewers appeared quite relaxed as they enjoyed their Prosecco and hors d’oeuvres. And they weren’t entirely wrong in their amused curiosity. As Europeans, fireworks still symbolize the Baroque spirit to them, the purest way of celebrating the art of squandering. Each bang and spark-spewing, colorful constellation costs money that everyone and everything depends on and that’s being simply pulverized here. And we still – today very democratically – love the showy expenditure of fireworks, which, to the point of absurdity, nullify any questions concerning cost, purpose, and utility.


Cai Guo-Qiang Berlin 2006,
Photo Mathias Schormann,
©Deutsche Guggenheim, Cai Guo-Qiang


The beauty of fireworks derives from a pleasure in the thing itself, the magnificent rain of fire whose artful choreography transcends the profane appearance of violence and destruction. It is an attitude that springs from European thought. When gunpowder made its way from China to Europe in the late 13th century, it was only used for decorative fireworks after being implemented in warfare. It was above all during the Baroque period that firework displays were put on as regular theatrical events. Craftsmen built complete architectural replicas and artists skillfully painted props as fire workers brought countless serpents, rockets, and cherry bombs into position. Dragons represented the attackers and, led by a string, slithered to the fortress to unleash a carefully planned chain reaction. Then, ear-splitting cherry bombs were detonated, pinwheels spun their tracks of light across the sky, and serpents flew out to confound the enemy. In the end, the enemy’s stronghold was blown up to the deafening sound of thunder – just like at Anhalter Bahnhof, because Illusion II, which premiered in Berlin, is an inescapable part of this tradition.



Illusion II: Explosion Project, Berlin 2006
Photo: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy Cai Studio

When the artist, who was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, decided in 1981 to study at the theater academy in Shanghai, he came into contact with European theater tradition, which also draws on the Baroque love of spectacle. In contrast with that of the art academies, the program at the theater academy was capable of carrying on an international dialogue. The discussions were conceptual in nature, as Cai Guo-Qiang recalls. Along with practical instruction ranging from the initial proposal to budget planning, production, and finally the performance itself, the discussions over the set, the use of light, and above all the treatment of space and time were crucial to Cai’s artistic development.



Illusion II: Explosion Project, Berlin 2006
Photo: Maria Morais

When he finished his studies, Cai Guo-Qiang initially immersed himself in oil painting. He had already, however, begun working with the material that was to continue to determine his artistic work for some time and that would bind him to his Chinese heritage: gunpowder. Cai implemented it as a kind of random factor in order to influence the form and color in his oil paintings. At this point in time, in 1986, he received a travel grant for Japan, which took him to a country that had over the course of centuries developed its own great tradition of fireworks. While in China gunpowder was a waste product of alchemical experiments in search of new cures, and hence called "fire medicine," the Japanese term hana-bi, "Flowers of Fire," clearly underlines the aesthetic aspect, which seems more related to the Western view.



Exploding House: Project for Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, 2006,
Collection of the artist, © Cai Guo-Qiang

In their site-specific nature, the Gunpowder Drawings and firework performances that Cai developed in Japan had far more in common with the notion of "fire medicine." But they also kindled a spark in their Japanese audience, with their great reverence for the tradition of hana-bi. The interest Cai’s work met with here might have proved puzzling, because Cai’s fire art had nothing whatsoever to do with the ordinary image of fire flowers. But Cai Guo-Qiang attained a measure of success in Japan with one fundamental idea of his artistic work: using the strength of his opponent in accordance with the teachings of Asian martial arts. Cai, who played in martial arts films as a young man, returned to this again and again; he often mentions that he borrows the energy for his works from nature.



Cai Guo-Qiang, Transient Rainbow, New York, 2002,
©Deutsche Guggenheim, © Cai Guo-Qiang

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