Live from New York: Cai Guo-Qiang maps out his fiery Houston undertaking
For a gunpowder artist, Cai Guo-Qiang exudes a feeling of incredible calm.
Sitting in the kitchen of his New York studio, he barely raises his voice above a whisper as he discusses his ambitious project: Creating 47 panels for a permanent installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston practically overnight with the flick of a flame. You won't find bellicose histrionics or shoot-'em-up boasting from the 53-year-old artist who has received worldwide acclaim for his unique art. That's not his style. He's more of a monk than a mouth-off.
On a recent weekday, I met the charismatic artist over a lunch of duck, stir fried tofu with black bean sauce, steamed cod and rice. Cai and his staff, most of whom will accompany him to Houston next month when he creates the fiery work of art in a Houston warehouse, take a break in the middle of each workday and gather at a small kitchen table for a homecooked meal and conversation, largely in Mandarin.
There's a feeling of camaraderie mixed with a sense of purpose at the reconverted elementary school in the East Village, which houses the artist's administrative offices, archives and studio for all his projects. Cai has around six projects currently going on in various states of progress, but the Houston endeavor is unlike anything he has previously done and presents special challenges.
He says the MFAH commission — probably the largest work of art he has ever created — is different from his solo pieces because the artwork will be permanently installed and viewed along with works by other Asian artists in the MFAH's new Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery.
"The artwork has to convey a spiritual quality that can interact with Chinese art from different time periods," he said, through an interpreter. "The drawing is created by exploding gunpowder on paper in a very short instant, but it must convey a sense of tranquility as though time is paused."
Cai has been working with gunpowder since the 1980s, but he feels like he still has a lot to learn. During a tour of the studio, he points out dozens of canvases marked with gunpowder tracings of mountains, pine trees, butterflies and peonies — motifs that will be part of the MFAH project. A week earlier he and his staff spent a lot of time at the Grucci fireworks factory on Long Island experimenting with the techniques he will use to create the panels.
"Because he wants to maintain an ethereal ambience in the drawing, he cannot apply a lot of gunpowder," project manager Chinyan Wong explained. "And so he has to try to figure out ways of making smoke travel on the paper and leave a faint trace when ignited."
During a tour before he had to duck out to catch a flight to Mexico, where a retrospective of his work is being planned, Cai pointed out a canvas that looks remarkably like a pine tree. To achieve that result, he ignited larger amounts of gunpowder to explode in a scorched pattern resembling pine needles.
For a watercolor effect in other drawings, he traps smoke as it travels along along the paper, leaving faint swirly traces. He incorporates realgar, a yellow pigment used in Chinese medicine, to add a dramatic touch of color. He creates stencils to approximate a sunflower. The options seem endless.
And he's a good mimic, too. I was told after he left that Cai makes remarkable hissing and popping gunpowder sounds that resemble the real thing.
Cai has been working on the Houston project since January, when he and MFAH director Peter Marzio agreed to a deal with a simple handshake. A small model of the MFAH Arts of China gallery sits in a prominent position at the studio, as a reminder that the project is imminent. Cai's studio team will arrive in Houston next Friday; he will join them on Oct. 3 to prepare for the ignition of the artwork on Oct. 6 in a warehouse near the Astrodome.
In the small model, the dark shiny floor reflects the placid images of the artwork, just as Cai hope the granite floors in the finished gallery will reflect his larger-than-life drawings.
"He wants it to be very reflective, so you're visually walking between mountain and lakes," Wong said. "We'll see how it turns out."
Indeed, we will.