Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Smoking Art

Art is all about feeling, particularly what the viewer feels when he or she looks at a work. Sometimes the work has been completed; other times it is in progress. Sometimes the most impressive aspect of art is that of creating the work, witnessing the technique and getting a glimpse into the artist's mind as he or she creates the art. To a degree, there is a bit of a science to it-the emphasis on the act of creating and the creation itself. In the gunpowder artworks of Cai Guo-Quiang, this convergence of art and science is explosive.

He does not simply use his finished product to capture his audience's interest. Educated at the Shanghai Theater Academy, Cai turns each gallery into a stage. He hopes that in doing so, he can "establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them". The audience members feel as though they are participating in the creation of the work as they don gloves, goggles, and masks to observe the spectacle. The space becomes charged with energy as Cai sprinkles cardboard stencils of his design onto the large canvases and then lights the fuse. Following the short explosion, Cai's assistants remove the stencils and put out the flames.

Cai's explosive masterpieces exhibit both product creativity(the designs of the stencils are planned) and improvisational creativity(the creation of the work happens in seconds in front of an audience). In publicizing the event, it gives others access to an individual's creative process. In this, the art is both collaborative and playful(R. Keith Sawyer). The process is quick, like lighting off a firework, and the finished product is the result of the shooting of sparks. 

This form of art is very risky-Cai doesn't have control over how any of his pieces will turn out. He plans out his patterns, which are inspired by nature, but the final result is up to the explosion. The result is spontaneous-an important aspect of creativity, and the work can never be copied. The gunpowder is such a volatile substance, like the changing of nature over time. He sees these explosions as metaphors for environments that individuals find themselves in, particularly in cases of oppression. He also sees it as the "idea of the alchemist, using dirt, dust, and getting gold from it".  Cai Guo-Qiang also remembers seeing and hearing fireworks at all social events as a child, like a town-crier that the world was still turning. However, he finds his inspiration from a variety of sources, including Chinese brush painting, Gutai painting-performance, Dadaist provocation, Joseph Beuys's social sculpture, Arte Povera, and Neo-Expressionism. 

Cai's gunpowder art has been viewed as a very pure idea that is above the art market. Part of this comes from how costly his art is to bring to life, as it requires aids and a steady supply of resources to keep the performances going. It is all about the spectacle, which draws viewers and sets it apart from much of the artwork in galleries today. Critics also claim that his gunpowder pieces are "modest, but not exactly memorable", and the spectacle is just as exciting watched on a video as viewed live. 

The gunpowder art has not been Cai's first art project with a conscience to it, a goal of emphasizing that the masses be aware of their current environment. In another installation, entitled "I Want to Believe", Cai protests the human rights as well as animal abuses, depicting life-sized replicas of tigers peppered with arrows in the hopes that all will feel pain upon viewing the exhibit. In this too, the spectacle of the art is what is meant to draw the viewer's attention. His art highlights the play of creativity and the importance of spontaneity, playfulness, and the intersection of imagination and reality in the personality of a creative and his or her works. His works may destroy a bit of the canvas, but they sure do create something with a bang.

1 comment:

  1. I have definitely never come across such explosive art in my life before. A couple of questions that popped up in my mind while reading your post, I wonder if Cai Guo-Quiang was extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. On one hand, since his art is spontaneous and literally a performance, that seems like it's extrinsic motivation. However, on the other hand, you mentioned that he uses some (if not all) of his art to portray strong messages which indicates a level of intrinsic motivation. I'm also curious to know how he discovered the artistic potential in something normally used to cause harm.


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