Gunpowder Art: a bonfire on canvas

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Destruction breeds creation. Ai Weiwei smashed an ancient artefact to broken shards in his triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Banksy notoriously hit the self-destruct button to shred his painting of a girl with a red balloon immediately after it sold for $1.4 million at auction. And for the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang nothing quite beats exploding coloured gunpowder onto a canvas.

One of the better known Chinese contemporary artists, you will have probably seen Cai’s work already without realising. Setting him on the path to global stardom, Cai was the mastermind behind the colossal firework display at the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony. Part of a large number of Chinese artists who left the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cai’s formative years were spent in an unstable China, fraught with political uncertainty and the mass destruction of cultural heritage.

The unpredictability of these controlled explosions crosses the boundary into performance art

His work has strong echoes of a childhood characterised by the gunfire and explosions of the Chinese civil war. Charred remnants of gunpowder stick to the canvas like bullets peppering a body. Shapes suggest a torso, a blood splatter, or perhaps a flesh wound. If this is suggested by the style, individual works go beyond this. Cai frequently engages with Chinese culture, referencing Chinese medicine, traditional ink paintings and symbolic motifs such as peonies. In doing so, he indicates that his work is a fresh reinterpretation of classical Chinese calligraphy and painting. Ultimately, the artist intends to “unleash [his] imagination through fierce interflowing of abstract colours”. Although a small exhibition, Gunpowder Art at the Ashmolean is a great introduction to this abstract work and his signature style.

Cai utilises a material with a long history in China. Gunpowder was invented there in the ninth century where, far from the misconception that the Chinese were only interested in detonating meek firecrackers, it was used to develop bombs, fire lances and fire arrows. Cai’s work involves detonating coloured gunpowder onto a canvas covered in cardboard and held down by weights and bricks. Although seemingly random, he has some control over the shapes created through stencils and careful placement of the powder. Yet the unpredictability of these controlled explosions crosses the boundary into performance art.

The canvas is the leftover from a show that you have missed, but were never invited to in the first place

Months of planning are reduced to a few seconds of smoke and sparks accompanied by Cai’s infectious childlike glee. The canvas is the leftover from a show that you have missed, but were never invited to in the first place. Yet the beauty of Cai’s work is that he seems to capture the explosion in motion, as if leaving a note to say, ‘sorry you missed the best bit but here’s a pretty damn good souvenir’.

The Netflix documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang brilliantly captures the artist’s obsessive attempt to create an immense pyrotechnic ladder reaching to the sky. Perhaps Sky Ladder is a good metaphor for all of Cai’s gunpowder art. It feels like you are witnessing something momentary, caught in motion that takes weeks, even years, to prepare but when it reaches the heights truly captures the imagination. Destruction, caught in motion, breeding creation.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Gunpowder Art is showing at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 19 April 2020.

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