Voices of volunteer training: Gunpowder artist's helpers bring art power oftheir own
Gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang won't start his own on-site preparations for his landmark artwork — "Odyssey" for the walls of the Chinese gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — until Sunday, but the local volunteers working with the artist embarked on an odyssey of their own during a training session Saturday.
The diverse crowd of volunteers ranged from gallerists and art patrons to students and sculptors, eager to engage in a pivotal moment in the city's art history.
"When I heard about the opportunity to volunteer, I knew I had to do it," Heights gallery owner Apama Mackey tells CultureMap.
Mackey heard bits of buzz surrounding Cai for years before trekking to New York in 2008 exclusively to see a retrospective on the artist at the Guggenheim Museum.
"I knew it was something I would never see again," she says of the New York exhibition, echoing her enthusiasm for today's training.
Local artist Ruth Shouval had no knowledge of Cai before stumbling upon the same Guggenheim show, which she left enraptured by the artist's "astonishing" works. When her friend and fellow aritst Cristina Jaddick informed her of the volunteer opportunity in Houston, she simply replied, "I'm going there."
"He such a magnificent artist," Jaddick adds. A multimedia installation artist herself, she explains, "The medium he's using is just fantastic. As an artist, it really appeals to me. It's such a humongous undertaking that it includes the community at large. Not to mention, the cultural exchange is invaluable."
The volunteers piled onto the bleachers at Cai's warehouse studio on the southerly stretches of Kirby Drive, where Cai's volunteer coordinator Kelly Ma introduced the crowd to the artist's past volunteer projects. She screened a demo DVD explaining the artist's gunpowder technique, followed by a physical exercise in which volunteers handled one of the 42 panels that will soon line the walls of the MFAH Chinese gallery.
After the Houston project, Ma will be migrating to Mexico City to train another group of volunteers for a Cai project at the Universidad Autónoma de México.
Among the gunpowder artist enthusiasts was local arts figure Lea Weingarten, who was introduced to Cai's mastery in the fireworks display at the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Her fascination with Cai was cemented during a trip to see an exhibition of the artist this summer at Nice's Musée d'Art Moderde et d'art Contemporain.
"We had our children with us, and everyone was just completely intrigued," Weingarten says. "And then I saw that he was coming here — it was just kismet."
Arts patron Judy Nyquist was among Cai's minions, describing the volunteer experience as the "opportunity of a lifetime."
"When I heard about Odyssey, I just felt so inspired," she recalls. "I think it's brilliant; the museum founding this gallery. They've got all these antiquities, and what a way to speak to them."
Weingarten adds, "I love the tie of the magnesium and the fireworks from China with the museum's antiquities."
Nyquist cites curiosity as a leading factor in enlisting as a volunteer.
"When the museum interviewed us," she explains, "they told us that if we have any sensitivity to light or sound, we'd need to be careful, because the explosion is so incredibly powerful. It's going to be something really phenomenal.
"In the videos of Cai creating his works, you see that he's almost in a trance, in a dream," she says. "And then all of a sudden, after this extraordinary explosion, like the beginning or end of the world, he wakes up. It's an incredible experience. I'm so delighted that the MFAH went through the trouble to make this happen. Because it's not an easy endeavour."
This week's collaboration between the Houston volunteers and Cai also represents a unique chance for art enthusiasts to actively take a hand in the museum's permanent displays.
As Weingarten astutely notes, "What work can you visit the MFAH and say, 'I was a part of making that work?' "
Editor's note: If you don't have one of few coveted tickets to watch Cai's gunpowder art explode in person at the warehouse (and they are all sold out), you can watch a livestream of it on CultureMap.com.
There will also be an off-site viewing party held at Saint Arnold Brewing Company from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday. The first 100 people will be let in free courtesy of MFAH. After that, it will cost $7 to attend.