Authors on Art: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Explosions/Orgasms

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project 2009 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, December 11, 2009, 4:30 p.m., 60 seconds, gunpowder fuse, metal net for gunpowder fuse, and scaffolding, explosion area (building facade) approximately 60 x 85 1/4 feet. Photo by Lonnie Graham, courtesy The Fabric Workshop and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Today BURNAWAY welcomes Sarah Rose Etter for this month’s Authors on Art, a series of creative responses by poets, novelists, and experimental writers curated by Blake Butler.

And here we have a man who makes everything explode.

The first time I heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, it appeared he was blowing up the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The steps of the museum let out explosion sounds, belched out fat smoke and fire. I didn’t know any better at the time, thought the whole building was collapsing.

But the burst wasn’t a bomb. Guo-Qiang had rigged a wall of safe explosives, had strung up strands of gunpowder in the shape of a blossom that let off gunshot sounds.

After that I was hot hooked, stalking his work.

In Hiroshima, he created and set off black fireworks during the day, a strange, melancholy vision that faded to a gray blur.

In New York, he produced a black cloud to hover over the heads of the crowd on a clear day.

And when he took a break from the fire, his hands sculpted 99 life-sized wolves crashing into a Plexiglas wall, their bodies scattered, frozen broken on the floor after impact. (Picture:

Guo-Qiang has said his hometown, in Quanzhou, China, celebrated every event with explosions—births, deaths, weddings. The gunpowder and fireworks are in his blood.

He is also said to be making a commentary on both Eastern and Western societies, traditions, histories, religions.

And much of this work, without doubt, is political. The black fireworks were to commemorate those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima. The Plexiglas against which the wolves collapse is a reference to the Berlin Wall.

But stripped of the politics, his work exists in a place of beauty and violence.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006, glass sheet and 99 life-sized replicas of wolves, dimensions variable. Installation view at Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2006. Photo by Hiro Ihara and Mathias Schormann. Courtesy Cai Studio, New York.

The concept of daytime fireworks sounds wonderful, glittering—then Guo-Qiang turns it into a dark burst, an explosion of gray, a moment to remember the dead.

Here is a man who manufactures clouds with his hands. But he chooses to make them cruel black in the sun, constructs foreboding puffs.

Here is a man who controls wolves, but directs them into glass. The soft fur is less appealing once the bones of the animals are broken, splayed out, useless.

Here is art as invention. Guo-Qiang dreams up the fantastic, creates the fantastic, and then delivers the fantastic by the true definition of the word: huge, unreal, odd, bizarre, remarkable, grotesque.

And the temporary nature of his work only adds to its impact. Much of what he builds only lasts for moments. The result: creations that brim with newness and hope while simultaneously acknowledging neither can last any longer than a firework, or an orgasm.

“The explosion process obviously could be equated to the climax,” Guo-Qiang has said. “Immediately afterwards we’re trying to clean it up, put out the flames, put out the sparks, clean up the pieces, clear it away so you can see the work. Afterwards you have either great satisfaction or you have disappointment as to your entire performance.”

Sarah Rose Etter’s chapbook, Tongue Party, was published by Caketrain Press this year. She lives in South Philadelphia and co-curates the Tire Fire Reading Series.

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