If you use the internet today, you’ll probably see a trending video of a fireworks display, showing a huge ladder of explosions climbing impossibly high into the sky. It’s not photoshop or a hoax—it’s the work of one of the most celebrated and divisive contemporary artists working today.
You’ve probably already seen the work of Chinese-born, New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He’s had multiple high-profile solo shows in museums across the world, including a controversial one at the Guggenheim a few years ago. Cai’s museum-based work trends towards installations, but he also draws—with gunpowder, which is then detonated indoors. But even if you know his work, you might not be as familiar with his pyrotechnic art, which is more rare given the cost and work of staging each fireworks display (and he’s clearly had to avoid being pigeonholed as a “fireworks artist”).
These aren’t traditional sky flowers: Cai has developed a micro-chip based technique of choreographing displays, often using unconventional materials and colourings. The latest of the works, Sky Ladder—the video you’ll see everywhere today—was detonated in China in June. But Cai has been designed fireworks shows for more than a decade. Here are a few of the most interesting, with quotes from the artist.
Sky Ladder, in Quanzhou, Fujian, in June of 2015.
This piece took less than three minutes to detonate—a balloon at the top of the ladder holds up the lines—which should give you an idea of how fleeting these installations really are, compared to the months of planning that goes into them. In an interview with Ocula last year, he talks about how he got started working with explosives:
I tend to be relatively cautious and timid, serious and controlling, which are not very good traits for an artist. I needed to be more open and bold, so I began to play with a fan to blow the paint. Other times, I reversed the paintings and let them broil on top of a fire. Later on, I threw mini rockets toward the canvases. Gradually, I began to create works with gunpowder, and my works became more conceptual. Creating art has always been enjoyable and amusing; it has been my time-space tunnel.
Explosion Event for The Ninth Wave, a solo exhibition from 2014, in Shanghai.
This installation marked the opening of a solo show of Cai’s work, and was divided into three chapters, each designed to “project an image of nature in decline,” as the artist explained on his blog, using “food colouring, food-grade powders, fabric dyes and other nontoxic materials are used as main ingredients.” More:
The first part, Elegy, opened with dramatic black and white smoke mines and cascade effects. Reminiscent of a funerary parade, black smoke “crows” with flapping wings represent the joys and sorrows in life. The scene then ended with green smoke, or “grass and weeds,” resembling an exhale, or a mournful sigh... In Remembrance, coloured smoke effects splashed across the sky, as though nostalgically recalling past events and friendships throughout the years... Consolation brought warmth to the living; short, powerful spurts of aerials shells formed coloured and white chrysanthemums in the sky, gaining speed for the finale. Yellow willows filled the horizon slowly, drawing the explosion event to a close.
Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab at the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, in 2011.
This piece, which was titled Black Ceremony Explosion Event, was particularly interesting from a technical perspective. It used thousands of individual microchips to detonate each explosion individually, at a perfectly controlled intervals. Here’s how he explained it a few years back to COOL:
Until I started developing the technique of built-in microchips around 2001, all the fireworks were exploded by fuse and the timing of explosions were calculated by the length of fuse. Since fuse was made by hand, it was very difficult to fix the shape and order of explosions of fireworks. But if you use fireworks with built-in microchips, the altitudes and timing of explosions are already calculated. For instance, it is like 2000 people who have tickets get seated exactly in their right seats. I can control the altitude and timing of the explosions of 2000 fireworks. However, there are a good thing and a bad thing about introducing microchips. The good thing is that now I can use the sky as canvas. The bad thing is that they are expensive.
Mystery Circle, an installation at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, from 2012
Cai talked about the exhibition, which included gunpowder drawings, on the MOCA blog:
Yes, there is an element of violence in my work; the act of creation through destruction is similar to the birth of the universe. The violent process adds more value and meaning precisely because it results in quiet and elegant works.
This piece for the US Embassy in Beijing gives us a look at the unique process he has developed for gunpowder drawing, where the drawing is made and then detonated—at which point it’s complete.
Here’s how Cai described his work with gunpowder in an interview with Art21 from 2005:
Maybe my work, sometimes, is like the poppy flower. It’s very beautiful, yet because of circumstances, it also represents a poison to society. So, from gunpowder, from its very essence, you can see so much of the power of the universe—how we came to be. You can express these grand ideas about the cosmos. But at the same time, we live in the world where explosions kill people, and then you have this other immediate context for the work.