Cai Guo-Qiang began experimenting with the properties of gunpowder in his drawings in the 1980s. He used gunpowder of various grades and forms and exploded it on paper, leaving burnt and smoky charcoal-stained residue marks behind. Born out of his desire to subject his practice to the dynamic elements, Cai’s work expresses how beauty and violence are often intertwined. Much of this experimentation has lead to a practice which encompasses the use of explosives on a massive scale, and Vortex, a drawing depicting hundreds and thousands of wolves chasing one another in a circular motion, as if sucked into a vortex, is emblematic of Cai’s work.
Cai’s work are also recognized by a strong sense of movement, weaving together the extremes of emotions and states within nature. Head On was created in the wake of the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and reflects on the remaining fissures in spite of the political reunification of East and West Germany. Ninety-nine life-sized replicas of wolves are seen to be leaping in a pack towards a glass wall. While those leading the pack strike the glass wall and collapse in a heap, the wolves at the rear continue surging forward. Seen from afar, the leaping wolves form an arc of force and power, a reminder of the power of collective ideas and actions, and also, its consequence of blind pursuit.
While Cai’s work often relies on context, it also draws on symbols and materials from Chinese culture. His works are marked by a certain theatricality and require a sizable production crew, perhaps a vestige of his background in stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. His aggressive, set-like design brings together historical context and theatricality in Reflection – A Gift from Iwaki, comprised of a 15-meter long boat, excavated by ship makers of the Iwaki village in Japan where the work was created. The beauty of destruction is evident from the decaying shipwreck lying against a mountain of broken ceramic deities. The placement of broken deities in a museum was a deliberate gesture to question the point at which a religious statue relinquishes its spiritual significance, towards its function as mere artistic representations and commercial goods. First presented in 2004, Reflection – A Gift from Iwaki is reconstituted for each exhibition by seven fishermen from Iwaki.
Head on and Vortex are currently on view at Cai Guo-Qiang: Head On which runs till 31 August 2010 at the National Museum of Singapore. Reflection – A Gift from Iwaki is presented in Cai Guo-Qiang: Travels in the Mediterranean at Musée d’Art moderne et d’Art contemporain, Nice, France till 9 January 2011. Cai was born in 1957 in the city of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China. He was awarded the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007, and the 20th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2009. He also held the title of Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In 2008, he was the subject of a large mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He has lived in New York since 1995.