Cai's Odyssey
Explosive art

Chinese gunpowder wizard Cai Guo-Qiang set to blow up MFAH

Chinese gunpowder wizard Cai Guo-Qiang set to blow up MFAH

A literal blow-out is scheduled this fall for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

It's not a glam gala or swank YP cocktail hour. This is the live action work of artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who, come October, will be igniting his room-size gunpowder drawings and installing the works inside the museum.

"Cai Guo-Qiang's collaboration with the museum is unique in the world," Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH, tells CultureMap.

Considered the Jackson Pollock of our time, the Chinese-born Guo-Qiang has taken action painting and added the ancient Chinese invention of gunpowder to allow his drawings to catch fire. Through this medium, he has connected the mythic and the everyday with projects in all the inhabited continents of the world. 

With his work at the MFAH, Guo-Qiang will be producing his first permanent, site-specific installation in a United States museum, beginning with a live viewing of his method in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Houston (Oct. 5-6).

At the warehouse, the artist will ignite the drawing with a fuse, emitting energy and fumes that will produce the final work. The result will be an explosive moment for contemporary art in American museums.

Once he has finished the work over several days, in which the public will have the opportunity to view the artistic process, the monumental ethereal landscape, Odyssey, will be installed, lining the four walls of the MFAH's Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery. The installation, opening on Oct. 17, will envelope that gallery's display of ancient Asian artifacts.

"We're thinking of new ways to display not just modern art, but how it fits into the history of the entire world," Marzio says. "With many of the really good museum collections of Asian art, there's a hushed feeling when you walk into the galleries.

"You immediately feel alien, and it's hard to learn in that environment. I wanted to get away from that."

Odyssey is the first instance of the museum's Portals Project, an initiative to bridge the understanding of ancient Asian art by juxtaposing the genre with key pieces of contemporary art from the continent.

"It's part of a broader concept that we're dealing with which will be fully explored when we construct the museum's third building," Marzio says. "We're thinking of new ways to display not just modern art, but how it fits into the history of the entire world."

By positioning ancient work ensconced in the work of Guo-Qiang, the museum intends to demystify both ends of the chronological spectrum and open it up to new audiences.

It's unusual for a general, encyclopedic art museum to chart such unknown territory. Such a daring exhibition would usually fall under the realm of a specialized Asian or contemporary art museum. Yet the MFAH's unique focus on diversity is propelling it towards new curatorial perspectives as part of its effort to open up art to more people.

And those new audiences are sure to be enraptured by the installation's action-packed compositions.

"He drops the gunpowder on the canvas in a way that's similar to Jackson Pollock in those films," Marzio says. "There's a lot of chance when you ignite a monumental drawing, whether or not it's going to follow the pattern that's been laid out."

Guo-Qiang's work has been noted by critics for its intrinsic "poetic" appeal. "It's unpredictable, and that's where the element of poetry comes in," Marzio says. "The juxtapositions of words in poetry and lines in Guo-Qiang's work are so rich, they both invite a wealth of interpretations. It looks so delicate, and yet it was caused by combustion — and you feel that."

Guo-Qiang is an established name in contemporary art circles, so when Christine Starkman, the MFAH curator of Asian art invited him to the museum, the curator capitalized on the moment and asked him about utilizing the Arts of China Gallery.

"It struck me as an ideal relationship, and he understood the space right away," Marzio says. The artist and museum director hatched the concept to turn the gallery into a crucible for understanding Asian art. "He immediately got really excited," Marzio adds.

While performance art and active installation has been explored by artists for decades, from Pollock's brand of Abstract Expressionism to the rock formations of Robert Smithson and the Earth Art movement, Guo-Qiang's method speaks of a higher plain of spirituality, all part of his consistent investigation of humanity's place in the universe.

On that notion, the artist remarks, "Odyssey not only symbolizes the voyage that Chinese culture has taken from antiquity to modern times, it is also about the ancient Chinese literati's journeys of the mind between heaven and earth. It removes us from the materialism, the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, allowing us to seek self-exile, wander aimlessly and embark on a spiritual odyssey of our own."


Cai Guo-Qiang working his gunpowder magic:

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Cai Guo-Qiang producing a gunpowder drawing titled "Unmanned Nature," Hiroshima, October 2008 Photo by Seiji Toyonaga, Courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art
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Cai Guo-Qiang Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders