Let the adventure begin
The Odyssey begins as Cai Guo-Qiang touches down in H-Town
After months of anticipation, gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang has touched down in Houston, where he will spend the next three days at his ad-hoc warehouse studio in preparation for Wednesday's ignition.
Rather than rushing to the workspace Sunday morning, Cai began his day accompanied by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator of Asian art, Christine Starkman, observing examples of Chinese literati paintings at the museum, ranging from the 17th to 20th centuries.
"When 'Odyssey' is installed in the arts of China gallery, it will be interacting with artifacts from different periods of time," he explained to CultureMap, via a translator, "so I was trying to get a sense from people in ancient times, what sensations they might have experienced and their spiritual mindsets."
He was particularly struck by the work of Shutong Li, who after a brief career as a painter, became one of China's most prominent Buddhist monks of the 20th century. "Li's work is quite rare to come across," recounts Cai, who shares a connection with Shutong because both studied in Japan.
"He would just stand in front and let it come to him," Starkman says of Cai's reactions to the MFAH holdings. "He was looking at the mist, the trees; I think he really was recording the images in his head, fresh. In a way, it was good to have that time, so he could have an inspired moment before beginning work at the warehouse."
A roll of butcher paper, spanning the length of the four walls of the museum gallery, currently is positioned on the warehouse floor. Cai devoted Sunday to transferring his preliminary scroll sketches to the paper, which will function as a stencil when it is placed over the 42 panels that will line the gallery. He draws while standing, allowing a wide view of the project.
First, he sketches the future brushstrokes with a Sharpie marker attached to a long pole. Afterward, he uses a similarly long paintbrush dipped in Japanese sumi ink to confirm the marker lines. When he is content with the shape of the strokes, a dozen volunteers equipped with utility knives descend upon the paper and cut out the brushstrokes, completing the stencil-making process.
Today, Cai focused on the landscape aspect of the drawing, from mist and clouds that will decorate the east and west sides of the gallery, to the outlines of mountains.
"The progress today was faster than I had imagined," he said, "because the volunteers who came already had a lot of the required skills and they were very serious about what they were doing. Sometimes the volunteers in other places might not immediately understand, or make mistakes, but that didn't happen at all today."
Starkman echoed Cai's satisfaction with the first day's progress, saying, "It's been going really well, just so calm and quiet. And you want it to be calm and quiet."
Working in the massive warehouse presents conceptual challenges, as its scale differs greatly from the museum gallery where the drawings will hang permanently.
"The panels of the drawing are layed out in the warehouse, in such a vast, flat space," he explained, "whereas when it's installed in the galleries it's on four walls and in a very intimate relationship with the museum visitor. Here, my brushstrokes come out quicker and rougher, which wouldn't read correctly in the gallery when the drawing is closer to the visitor."
Yet overall, Cai appears content with the project's smooth progress, and he's enjoying the pristine Houston weather. He says of his first impressions of the city:
As I travel between the hotel, the museum and the warehouse, I feel that this is a very vast city. With the weather so perfect and no clouds, I feel like I could gallop for thousands of miles on a horse. And right now, with this drawing layed out so flat, displayed across the entire floor, it feels like wide-open plains. When I finish it, maybe Houstonians will like it because of the inclusion of mountains. It will offer a different aura."