Cai's Odyssey
The Odyssey Takes a Swerve

Cai change: Inspired by Houston, gunpowder artist alters his explosive plans to include happy plants

Cai change: Inspired by Houston, gunpowder artist alters his explosive plans to include happy plants

The artist's process is not always fluid: artworks acquire different layers, new media is introduced, and compositions become altered. Such is the case with Cai Guo-Qiang's Odyssey, which underwent a rupture in format on Monday that rivals Wednesday's anticipated explosion in dramatic effect.

Significantly, Cai's changes have been informed not merely by artistic whims, but his experience during his short time in Houston. Inspired by viewing of Chinese paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where he also browsed through an album of flowers, Cai has drawn a new section on the 51-meter paper, adding lotus, peonies and a scholar's rock.

"It's completely new from the original plans," explains MFAH curator of Asian art, Christine Starkman. "It's a motif that he loves, these flowers. Scholarly painters love that motif too, so he was happy that he was able to bring it in. But he also loves the simple visual effect."

Starkman translated that Cai intends to imbue the future Arts of China gallery with a "sense of happiness" through the new symbols. Traditionally, the lotus represents the ethereal and immortality, while the peony connotes high taste, ephemerality and intellectualism. The new imagery has taken the former place of mountains and clouds, which still remain prominent aspects of other panels.

Adding to the impromptu change in composition was the artist's request for actual plant matter to be brought to the warehouse studio. MFAH associate director Willard Holmes volunteered to fetch bamboo and wisteria from the museum's own Cullen Sculpture Garden and harvested the botanical finds himself.

"I went to my house and cut some honeysuckle because I didn't know how big of a vine he wanted," Holmes tells CultureMap with a chuckle.

The bamboo and wisteria will be incorporated over the gallery's arched entryways. Holmes elaborates, "He's going to press the plants onto the paper and then put gunpowder around them, so that whatever is burned will include a combination of both the hand-cut plants and the impression that they'll leave." Holmes also brought dried leaves, as per Cai's request, which will burn with the gunpowder.

"It's full of foliage, it's going to be beautiful," Starkman says of the new media.

Cai has begun to incorporate different forms of paper in the stencils, notably glassine and Japanese tissue paper. Each material will imbue Odyssey with its own effects; the thin tissue paper will create the look of a soft paintbrush, giving the flowers a cloudy quality, while the glassine's burning will result in more severe lines.

With Wednesday's 6 p.m. explosion event approaching, Starkman was in negotiations with the fire marshal about how close the explosion can take place in relation to the audience bleachers, as the crew prepared to lay out the 42 fiberboard panels for the first time. Cai is already envisioning the aftermath of Wednesday's ignition, and has suggested to Starkman that they conduct a tea ceremony in the Arts of China gallery on Friday, before the museum's Chinese antiquities are reinstalled.

"We will be with only a few key museum figures," Starkman says. "It's our first and last time to experience Cai's work in its most pure state."


Editor's note: If you don't have one of the 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 on

There will also be an off-site viewing party held at Saint Arnold Brewing Company from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday. The first 100 guests will be admitted free, courtesy of MFAH. After that, admission is $7.

Volunteers whisk Cai's stencils across the warehouse. Photo by Everett Taasevigen
Cai distributes gunpowder to test different effects on Monday morning. Photo by Everett Taasevigen
Although he originally was transferring his composition from a scroll, Cai's layout for "Odyssey" has evolved. Photo by Everett Taasevigen
Cai reports that he's impressed with the volunteers' enthusiasm. Photo by Everett Taasevigen