• Cai Guo-Qiang discusses his gunpowder drawing with Albert Chao.
    Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Avalokitesva, Chinese, Northern Zhou dynasty (557-581) to Sui dynasty (581-618),carved limestone, gift of T.T. & W.F. Chao Global Foundation in honor of Mr. andMrs. Ting Tsung Chao, with additional funds provided by the Director'sAccessions Fund
  • Ritual Vessel (Zun), Chinese, Shang Dynasty, 12th century B.C., bronze, museumpurchase with funds provided by the Friends of Asian Art

The 42 panels of Chinese gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang's Odyssey envelope the newly reinstalled Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Arts of China Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and will debut to the public on Sunday.

What was originally meant to hold a variety of ancient objects has now been distilled to four distinctive pieces that collaborate to form a dynamic dialogue with Cai's first permanent museum installation.

A vestibule from the two-story main gallery of the Caroline Weiss Law Building will display calligraphic texts from ancient China, leading into the main gallery with Cai's drawings. Walking into the space, the focal point of the gallery is a dramatic depiction of a mountain peak and waterfall. Like a mirage, a Buddhist statue stands at the conclusion of the waterfall, as if it has just descended from above. The statue is an Avalokitesvara, the enlightened being of Buddhism representing mercy, wisdom and compassion.

Believed to rule over the Paradise of the West, where believers went after breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, the 6th-century Avalokitesvara evinces the Silk Road's influence of bringing eastern styles to China.

"In this one sculpture, this is the embodiment of multiculturalism," explains Asian art curator Christine Starkman. The headdress is Hindi, and the images of pendants are imported from the Near East.

Cai's fascination with the Chinese scholarly tradition comes full circle in the new gallery. A 17th-century Ming Dynasty scholar's table screen depicts the literati class reading poetry, surrounded by geographic features such as a banana tree and low mountains, that are echoed in elements of Cai's landscape.

The screen incited Cai's adoration when Starkman showed it to him less than two weeks ago. The curator culled the work of contemporary artist and MacArthur fellow Xu Bing as a conceptual connection to the scholarly imagery of the screen. Xu's work, Book from the Sky, is encased in a table, revealing the artist's thousands of carved Chinese characters — each missing a stroke, rendering the texts illegible.

This 20th-century intervention brings a visual harmony (as a horizontal table display) and conceptually links the artifacts with Cai's interest in bookmaking, a practice he learned as a child in Quanzhou.

A bronze ritual vessel and ceramic wine jar completes the chronological narrative within the main gallery, while also paying homage to Cai's imagery: The bronze vessel would historically feature on a scholar's table, and the jar's painterly depiction of bamboo prevails on the panels.

It's not until the visitor enters the gallery's third room and turns away from Cai's panels that the artist's message sincerely manifests. In a small, dark vestibule linking a future Japanese art gallery rests a pair of 11th-century golden slippers, respectively depicting the male and female through a dragon and phoenix. Like the Avalokitesvara, the slippers' styling reveal that ancient China was not a vacuum, but was informed by travelers from further east.

"These are the expression of foreigners coming into China," elaborates Starkman. "I asked Cai if it would be all right for me to bring these in here," she recounts, "and he said, 'Yes they should be here.' He says they represent the footprints of the people coming to China, and that foreigners have been coming for centuries.' "

Ultimately, Cai requested the golden slippers be included because they embody the cultural exchange that has unfolded in China, and continues today. Says Cai, "It's all part of the odyssey."

Relive the key moments of CultureMap's livestream of ignition night:

  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill
  • Photo by Jenny Antill

Cai gunpowder, Buddhist monks and antiquities launch China Gallery at MFAH

Shelby's Social Diary

With the delicate chiming of brass bells and the chanting of Buddhist monks in saffron robes, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's new China Gallery received blessings for prosperity on Wednesday night.

The new home for the museum's growing collection of Chinese art also received generous nods of approval from gallery donors and top-tier MFAH patrons who joined in the preview of the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery.

For weeks, anticipation had been building as Chinese gunpowder artistCai Guo-Qiangprepared his paper canvas that would be ignited to create the ethereal images that now line the walls of the new gallery. Major donors and museum patrons who had witnessed the ignition now oohed and aahed over the sublime finished product. A video documenting the creation of the work, titled Odyssey, looped on screen throughout the evening.

Anne and Albert Chao (the gallery is named in honor of his parents), Diane and John Riley, Nidhika and Pershant Mehta and Sima and Masoud Ladjevardian were among those praising the end result. That something so explosive could evolve into the serene landscape of the gallery walls seemed to captivate all that had seen the ignition, whether in person or via CultureMap's livestream of the process.

The artist — dressed in charcoal turtleneck, black suit and gray tennis shoes — beamed throughout the night as he strolled the gallery with the aura of a rock star. Michelle and Frank Hevrdejs, Martha Long, Ann and Charles Duncan, Pam and Dr. David Ott, Lily and Charles Foster, Jay Jones and Terry Wayne Jones were among those swept up in the moment.

In his remarks to the dinner gathering that followed inspection of the gallery, MFAH director Peter Marzio observed that "Cai's great work of art serves as a receptacle for the ancient arts of China ... It is a contemporary crucible to hold ancient work." This juxtaposition of old and new, he said, is something not replicated anywhere in the world.

Cai was clearly enjoying the moment. "What a wonderous evening is this," he said through his interpreter. Remarking on the gathering of 130 that included Chinese, Koreans, Indians and Japanese, he beamed, "This is truly a gala for Asians."

Christine Starkman, MFAH curator of Asian art and key in the Odyssey accomplishment, would probably have agreed. She even spoke a few words of Chinese in her remarks.

MFAH board chair Cornelia Long and Meredith Long welcomed guests that included Marjorie Horning, Leslie and Jack Blanton Jr., Susan and Lenoir Josey, Kent Shaffer and Joan Lu. Special guest was Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums which will hold its national conference in Houston in May.

Relive ignition night at the warehouse:

  • Cai discusses his finished work with his collaborators.
    Photo by Douglas Newman
  • Cai discusses his finished work with his collaborators.
    Photo by Douglas Newman
  • Curator Christine Starkman observes the installed panels.
    Photo by Douglas Newman
  • A crew of MFAH employees performed two test runs of the installation before"Odyssey" was created.
    Photo by Douglas Newman
  • The installation crew places Cai's panels in sequence.
    Photo by Douglas Newman

Explosive aftermath art: Cai's gunpowder mountains are mounted at MFAH

Odyssey Gets Vertical

By this afternoon, the installation of the 42 panels of Chinese gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang's Odyssey in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Arts of China gallery will be complete. Less than two days ago, the panels were marooned in the warehouse studio before the dramatic Wednesday night ignition that cemented the images on Odyssey forever.

As he surveyed the gallery this morning, Cai beamed before his first permanent museum installation.

The MFAH crew was aggressively installing the panels in numbered order.

"When we installed the first wall," relates MFAH curator of Asian art Christine Starkman, "I said we only need one wall; that's enough, the image was that powerful."

But the panels piled in, revealing Odyssey for the first time in its intended vertical formulation. The scent of fresh gunpowder pervades the gallery, which is already being quelled by a new air conditioning filter.

The drawing's narrative begins on the gallery's south wall with dark-shaded tropical plants, leading the eye to a series of wisps indicating misty, low mountain tops. A mix of palm trees follows the hills, whose varied layers provide glimpses of Cai's background as an oil painter. The north end of the drawing erupts with a bombast collection of mountains, crashing down to form a rugged coastline.

The depiction of such rugged terrain pays homage to monumental paintings of 13th-century China.

"Painters then were trying to capture the magnificence of the landscape," Starkman explains. "And Cai can do that too. It's here on the wall."

The east wall completes the sequence with depictions of peonies and other iconic Asiatic botanicals. As the panels were being installed, Cai marveled at the naturalism that envelopes the entire gallery. The artist spoke of the link between nature and knowledge, and that once the final panel is posted, a visitor can simply sit on the ground and receive such knowledge.

Standing in the gallery, the viewer is struck by the directness of particular features, but a closer examination reveals the various gunpowder effects, and a particular lightness emerges. Most subtle of all is the landscape's reflection on the polished black granite floor, which Starkman compares to a pool of water. The moment that Cai suggested mounting his drawings on the wall, it was at the suggestion of MFAH director Peter Marzio that a reflective stone be a part of the installation.

Feng shui plays a leading role in the layout of the drawings. For example, the placement of the monumental mountain image at the gallery's north end and a waterscape towards the south is in accordance with positive chi, explains the curator.

"The movement of the chi," Starkman elaborates, "combined with the spirit of all of the people who put their energy into this work — it is emitting all over the room."

  • Photo by Everett Taasevigen

Ignition time: Watch the replay of gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang's artisticexplosion

Boom Boom Pow!

Click here to watch the livestream replay of Cai Guo-Qiang's artistic explosion.


The countdown is nearly complete.

After several days of preparation with the help of more than 100 volunteers, Cai Guo-Qiang will make last-minute touches to his Odyssey project tonight at a warehouse near the Astrodome and ignite the gunpowder to create a work of art that will frame the new Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Here's a breakdown of activities:

  • The livestream of Cai's project begins on CultureMap at 5 p.m. Cai will give instructions to volunteers about the state of the drawing and what will happen as he makes final preparations for ignition.
  • At 6 p.m., 500 guests begin arriving at the warehouse to observe the ignition. Once they are settled on bleachers lining the project, Cai will welcome guests, through an intepreter, and explain what he plans to do.
  • He will ignite the gunpowder on stenciled drawings on the 42 panels, which stretch the length of two basketball courts, anywhere between 6:15 and 7:15 p.m.
  • It will take six seconds to ignite the drawings on the 42 panels.
  • Once the smoke settles, he and his team will strip away the cardboard stencils, leaving the finished piece of art.
  • Afterwards, volunteers will gather with Cai for a group photo.

The panels will be transported to the Museum of Fine Arts on Friday. The gallery will open to the public Oct. 17.

If you miss the ignition live, CultureMap also has you covered. A few minutes after the livestream ends, a replay that begins with Cai's remarks and runs through the ignition will be shown in a loop on the Cai Odyssey page. You'll be able to catch anything you missed or relive the explosive art moment.

  • Workers put the stencils in place
    Photo by Everett Taasevigen
  • Cai Guo-Ciang's right hand was covered with gunpowder
    Photo by Everett Taasevigen
  • Chinyan Wong, from left, and Kelly Ma kept the audience entertained through thelong wait
    Photo by Everett Taasevigen
  • Photo by Everett Taasevigen
  • Photo by Everett Taasevigen
  • After the bleachers cleared out, Cai Guo-Qiang was left with his finishedproduct
    Photo by Stephen Newman

Art in action: Cai Guo-Qiang's big evening was a real blast

Cliff Notes

It was the ultimate in performance art.

As an audience composed of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston donors and friends watched from hard steel bleachers for several hours Wednesday night, a grim-faced Cai Guo-Qiang pensively walked the perimeter of the massive work of art he was creating before their eyes. Time and time again, he bent down and scooped his hand into a bowl of black gunpowder and sprinkled it like swirly sugar onto the stenciled drawings laid out on the floor. Before the evening was even half over, his hand was as black as a piece of coal. It made you wonder how he ever washes off the sooty gunpowder residue.

He moved nimbly on the warehouse's hard concrete floor and I wondered how his back and legs had survived for several days — until I looked down at his feet. He shuffled by in pastel blue terrycloth bedroom slippers.

Fire marshalls had limited the number of those who could watch the gunpowder artist ignite Odyssey, the artwork he was creating for the new MFAH China Arts Gallery, which only made it a hotter ticket. On the front row, museum trustees Jeannie Kilroy, Marty Goossen, Prabha Bala, Mike Linn and lead donors Anne and Albert Chao watched intently. Nearby, Nidhika and Pershant Mehta, major contributors to the museum's Arts of India Gallery, and their young children eagerly awaited the explosion.

"I can't imagine something as destructive as gunpowder coming alive in such an instructive way," said Nidhika Mehta.

MFAH trustee Michael Zilkha and Jeffrey Deitch, new director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, also sat on the front row but they abruptly dismissed a question about what they thought of the evening's activities and shooed a young reporter away.

As the evening dragged on, the audience grew a little restless but the excitement didn't fade as Cai methodically worked, refusing to be rushed.

They watched transfixed as staff from his studio and a team of MFHA workers painstakingly laid thin wax paper over the gunpowder drawings and covered them with a thin sheet of cardboard and then a thicker piece, with bricks on top so the cardboard wouldn't pop off when the explosion happened. He explained the multi-layered procedure was intended to trap the smoke emmited by the gunpowder and allow it travel along the canvas.

While they worked, Cai's staff assistant, Kelly Ma, kept the crowd entertained with her instructions to the workers and to the audience.

"Do not attempt to do this on your own," she shouted just before Cai lit the fuse."And do not panic. Can you promise me that?"

Like a lot of the volunteers and studio staff, she had sliced up her official Odyssey T-shirt so that it fell down over one shoulder, Flashdance style. She looked like a contestant on So You Think You Should Dance.

At last it was time to light a fuse on either side of the long drawing. Officials had estimated it would take around six seconds for the painting to ignite. It was over in two — barely enough time to get earplugs in place — followed by a burst of white smoke that rose to the ceiling.

In fact, it happened so quickly that a camera mounted on a tiny car that was set up to run the length of the drawing couldn't keep pace.

As workers removed the cardboard and paper — like peeling layers of an onion — a strong odor of sulfur permeated the air. It smelled like the Fourth of July.

Afterwards, Cai flashed a smile, although he seemed concerned about a center portion of the large artwork.

"It came out even better than we expected,' he said, through an interpreter. "The smoke traveled so beautifully. It managed to pierce the sense of the artificial, but maintain a contemporary image."

Nearby Ma accepted compliments for her running commentary. "I hope it was at least entertaining," she said.

Even the fact that the spark out-traveled the camera car didn't ruffle the evening, she said.

"Sometimes the imperfect is the most perfect."

  • The crowd packed in for the Cai viewing party.
    Photo by Caroline Gallay
  • Saint Arnold Brewing Company provided a setting that kept the waiting crowd morethan satisfied.
    Photo by Michelle Watson/LastNightPics.com

Beer blowup: Saint Arnold draws massive turnout for Cai Odyssey viewing party

Standing-room only

Saint Arnold Brewery Company was awash in deep green MFAH stickers Wednesday night for the viewing party of the explosive creation of Chinese gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang's Museum of Fine Arts, Houston installation.

It was standing room-only at the brewery with all the benches filled. Several hundred art and beer fans crammed in.

As is usually the case with anything artistic, things didn't quite go as planned. The ignition was delayed, but with the help of Soma Sushi, Sprinkles cupcakes, and three award-winning brews among Saint Arnold's usual stable the crowd was kept satisfied and at bay.

A little after 8:30 p.m. the gunpowder was lighted and the throngs watched as Guo-Qiang, at last, examined his final product.

We won't see the finished panels for a while (and it was difficult to discern the artist's reaction) but it was a major event for those who've been following the process through to the finish.

Benches were up at Saint Arnold on the tables by 9 p.m. in a speedy culmination of months of preparation. The Kirby warehouse cleanup would take a little longer. We can't wait to see the panels installed in the new Arts of China Gallery — tell us, was it everything you'd hoped?

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus navigates marriage pitfalls in You Hurt My Feelings

Movie Review

Anybody who’s been married or in a long-term relationship knows that it’s almost impossible to be completely honest with his or her partner. There are always going to be moments – whether for the sake of expediency, in a show of support, or other reasons – when one person withholds their true opinion so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings.

That idea is the central tension point of You Hurt My Feelings, which follows Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a writer/teacher, and her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), a therapist. Beth is in the middle of trying to get her first fiction book published, a process that is causing her unceasing anxiety. Don sees a series of patients, including a constantly-bickering couple (played by real-life husband and wife David Cross and Amber Tamblyn), and a few lapses cause him to question his commitment to the profession.

When Beth and her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), accidentally overhear Don telling his brother-in-law, Mark (Arian Moayed), that he doesn’t like Sarah’s new book and is exhausted having to tell her otherwise, it sends Beth into an emotional spiral. The aftermath winds up pulling in not just the two couples, but also Beth and Don’s son, Eliot (Owen Teague), dredging up feelings that all of them normally try to keep hidden.

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, the film is a funny and genuine look at how even the best couples can run into pitfalls. By most measures, Beth and Don get along fantastically well, supporting each other unwaveringly and showing their love in a variety of ways. When the story puts them at odds with each other, there’s never a question that they belong together, as even their arguments are tinged with exasperation instead of anger.

Holofcener complements the story of Beth and Don with a nice variety of side plots, including Eliot trying to start his own writing career while working at a weed store; Beth and Sarah’s mom, Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), offering up support and criticism in equal measures; and more. Don’s patients and Beth’s students offer an opportunity to expand the two characters’ personalities outside of their marriage while also adding a few other funny roles.

While perhaps not the most insightful film about marriage that’s ever been made, it is still highly enjoyable thanks to Holofcener’s writing and the strong performances. Filmed in New York City, the particular feel of that urban landscape and the way it affects the lives of the characters also plays a big part in the success of the film.

Louis-Dreyfus, as always, is a delight to watch. A kind of spiritual sequel to her previous collaboration with Holofcener, 2013’s Enough Said, the film gives her plenty of room to show off both her comedic and dramatic skills. Menzies makes for a steady presence, showing good chemistry with Louis-Dreyfus and a preternatural calm in therapy sessions. Watkins, Moayed, Teague, and Berlin all fit in seamlessly.

You Hurt My Feelings is not a world-changing kind of movie, but rather a solidly told story about how relationships can be complicated. With actors who are easy to like and Holofcener’s reliably great filmmaking, it’s a movie for adults that’s nice counter-programming to the glut of summer blockbusters.


You Hurt My Feelings is now playing in theaters.

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings

Photo courtesy of A24

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings.

Awe-inspiring new exhibit debuts at the Alamo with sneak peek


Ask first-time visitors about their experience at the Alamo, and you're likely to hear a frequent refrain. Guests accustomed to hearing about the mission's heroic history are surprised that the grounds are so small. But that's slowly changing with ambitious plans to bring the site's original footprint back to life.

Now, visitors will get a sneak peek at the complex's newest structure, the Mission Gate and Lunette exhibit, before it officially opens in 2024. Funded in part by a $3 million donation from the Joan and Herb Kelleher Charitable Foundation, the exhibition gives guests a broader understanding of the Alamo's scale.

The historical recreation was crafted by lauded San Antonio artist Carlos Cortés. A third-generation concrete faux bois artisan, his work is featured throughout the city, most notably on the River Walk, where his fantastical The Grotto greets thousands of Museum Reach visitors each year.

The life-size sculpture stands in for the original main gate of the fort at the southern boundary of the complex. Cannons and placards scattered throughout give crucial context to the structure. Though early renderings show the beams and spiked fence with more verisimilitude, the forms currently stand in ghostly concrete — inviting quiet contemplation.

When the exhibit is finished next year, guests will be more fully immersed in the hallowed grounds, which extend far beyond the walls of the iconic Church and Long Barrack. Coupled with the upcoming Alamo Visitor Center and Museum and the recently debuted Ralston Family Collections Center, it will turn the grounds into one of Texas' most awe-inspiring historical sites.

"We are deeply grateful to the Joan and Herb Kelleher Charitable Foundation for their support of the Alamo and our ongoing efforts to preserve this important piece of Texas history," said Dr. Kate Rogers, Executive Director of the Alamo Trust, Inc., via a release. "Their generosity will allow us to continue to educate and inspire visitors from around the world, ensuring that the legacy of the Alamo lives on for generations to come."

Alamo Mission Gate and Lunette exhibit

Photo courtesy of the Alamo.

The Mission Gate and Lunette exhibit gives visitors an understanding of the original ground's scale.

Houston Methodist injects $4.8 million into 50 area nonprofits to boost social equity

quite the boost

Acclaimed local hospital system Houston Methodist has awarded $4.8 million to 50 Houston-area nonprofits as part of its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant Program, the hospital announced this month.

The funds go toward "addressing the root causes of health inequities experienced by social, racial and ethnic minorities," according to the hospital. An estimated 51,000 Houstonians are expected to be impacted by these dollars.

Of the nonprofits selected, 24 are healthy neighborhood programs, 16 are educational empowerment programs and 14 are economic programs.

The grant program is broken up into two types of funding: The Social Equity Grant and the DEI Grant. Now in its third year, the program has for the first time selected recipients of the Social Equity Grant that all support economic empowerment.

"We know there is a direct correlation between economic stability and health outcomes," Ryane Jackson, vice president, community benefits at Houston Methodist said in a statement. "Without livable wages or employer backed insurance, access to health care can be limited. If we can help those in underserved communities obtain employment and increase their wages in a short amount of time, then we can provide immediate and meaningful change that can potentially be felt for years to come.”

Capital IDEA Houston is a local nonprofit that’s received the Social Equity Grant. The organization helps low-wage workers find living-wage careers. Capital IDEA plans to use the funds to support Black and Hispanic Women in health care professions and launch a pilot program that will assist women with an associate degree who are interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Another recipient, Compudopt, will focus on digital literacy training to low income African American and Hispanics, while Montrose Center will use the funds to support its Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years program at the Law Harrington Senior Living Center. Other recipients include Avondale House, BakerRipley, Interfaith Caring Ministries, Kids Meals Inc., and the Tejano Center for Community Concerns. Click here to find a full list.


Continue reading this story on our sister site, InnovationMap.