Cai's Odyssey
the curatorial eye

Curator Christine Starkman illuminates gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang's explosive work


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Courtesy of Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
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Photo by Masanobu Moriyama, courtesy Cai Studio
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Photo by Kunio Oshima, courtesy Cai Studio
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Photo by Yamamoto Tadasu, courtesy Cai Studio; Installation view at 46th Venice Biennale
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Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio
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Photo by Jens Frederiksen and Tatsumi Masatoshi
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Photo by Jens Frederiksen, courtesy Cai Studio
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Photo by Elio Montanari, courtesy Cai Studio; Installation view at 48th Venice Biennale, 1999
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Photo by Sun Yuan, courtesy Cai Studio; Installation view at 51st Venice Biennale, 2005
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Photo by Li Zilong; Xiong Tianhua’s airplane after its first test run, April 14, 2008

Culling experience from studying Zen in Japan, working with Japanese prints at the Art Institute of Chicago and the broad realm of pan-Asian art at the Cleveland Musem of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator Christine Starkman is steeped in the study and presentation of Asian art. With her keen eye for contemporary art currents, she masterminded the museum's partnership with Cai Guo-Qiang for the artist to create monumental gunpowder drawings to line the museum's new Chinese gallery.

As an introduction to gunpowder artist Cai's career, Starkman has curated a 10-piece online retrospective of his work.

Cai's penchant for finding continuity between ancient art and contemporary technique is what inspired Starkman to seek the artist to work with the MFAH.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Reviving the Ancient Signal Towers: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 8," 1991, (detail) Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo

"Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters" was executed at Jiayuguan City in China. The artist installed a 10,000-meter-long fuse and then ignited it to extend the Great Wall of China with smoke and flame, starting from the ancient westernmost check-post of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan on the evening of February 27, 1993.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10," 1993. Commissioned by P3 art and environment, Tokyo

Employing three kilograms of gunpowder, 2,000 meters of fuse and 114 helium balloons, "The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too" channels the impact of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Lasting a mere 30 seconds, this work's ephemeral nature also defines its monumentality.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16," 1994. Commissioned by Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art

The inherent drama of Cai's performances was informed by a degree in stage design from the Shanghai Drama Institute. For the 1995 Venice Biennale, Cai extended the artist's canvas from gunpowder drawings to the Mediterranean Sea. After being transported from the artist’s home town of Quanzhou, the boat was moored at Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin, a 17th-century merchant’s home. Visitors could board the boat, and in the Palazzo were invited to self-prescribe Chinese medicinal tonics, which were dispensed from a vending machine.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot," 1995. Commissioned by the 46th Venice Biennale

In the late 1990's, Cai paid homage to his Earth Art predecessors, imbuing his work with a new post-Cold War perspective.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century," 1996

Notes Starkman, "Cai grew up in a scholar's family — he has an understanding of literati, of painting, calligraphy, and tradition."

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Garden within a Garden," 1997. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark

Once again, Cai draws upon vernacular Chinese craft to create a contemporary installation. The artist intended for the ignited dragon to function as a beacon for both human spectators and extraterrestrials watching Earth's atmosphere from afar.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Flying Dragon in the Heavens: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 29," 1997. Commissioned by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark

For the last Venice Biennale of the 20th century, Cai commented on the century's socialist legacy. The original “Rent Collection Courtyard” was a tableau of more than a hundred life-size clay figures, created by the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts in 1965 to depict the oppression of peasants by a brutal landlord in pre-Communist China. Copies were exhibited throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. Having seen the original courtyard as a child, Cai employed Chinese artists (including one who worked on the Sichuan original) to recreate the scene in Venice as visitors watched and walked among them.

According to the New York Times, this work "secured Cai's international prominence." When a Guggenheim retrospective of the artist traveled to the National Museum in Beijing during the summer Olympics, it was banned from display for its political implications.

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard," 1999. Collection of the artist

Since his arrival on the art radar, scholars have debated the "Chineseness" of Cai's work. While he criticizes aspects of the Chinese political regime, Cai also identifies with the empowerment of his home country's citizens. "I feel that deep in his heart, Cai is very proud to be Chinese," says Rei Dawei, a Paris-based curator, who in 1990 gave Cai his first exposure in the West.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, "Farmer Du Wenda's Flying Saucer," 2005. Collection of the artist

Cai curated an exhibition of contraptions he collected from rural Chinese artisans. Running concurrently with 2010's World Expo in Shanghai, the exhibition has been described by Cai as "a counterpoint" to the event's upscale national pavilions. In an interview with the New Yorker, he identified the collection as a marker of the "hundreds of millions of peasants who have paid the price for the construction of modern society and better urban life in the reform era.”

Cai Guo-Qiang, "Peasant da Vincis," Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2010. Exhibition curated by Cai Guo-Qiang