Chinese culture has given the world many masterpieces. Rare musical instruments, ink painting and the elegance of calligraphy, colorful pagodas and the Great Wall of China, which is visited by millions of tourists every year. It was also from ancient China that gunpowder and fireworks came. It’s hard to imagine how you can create art with gunpowder, but that’s exactly what Cai Guoqiang, a contemporary Chinese artist who uses gunpowder mixture instead of paints, is doing.
Cai Guoqiang: Art is limited only by our imagination
Cai Guoqiang was born on December 8, 1957, in Quanzhou, a city on the southeast coast of Fujian Province, China. It was hard not to be drawn to art and respect for his homeland when growing up in a family of historian and artist.
His father, Cai Ruiqing, worked in a local bookstore. Guoqiang therefore had access to imported editions of foreign authors, which were censured by government officials. Ruiqing himself was a passionate connoisseur of history, calligraphy and painting, to which he introduced his own son. Most of all, Guoqiang loved to watch his father create masterpieces on matchboxes. “A canvas of such a small size required filigree precision from the artist.
Guoqiang himself also remembered Mao Zedong more than once and how he influenced his art. He was an idol to his generation, almost a deity. His artistic talent, calligraphy, poetry, military strategies, philosophy and revolutionary movements deeply affected an entire generation. Even if later his ideology had to be questioned.
The first and most direct influence of Mao’s ideology was the concept of “rebellion is justified.” It concerned outdated laws and dogmas, but this call coincided with the formative years of Guoqiang’s personality and settled forever in the mind on a conscious and subconscious level.
Cai Guoqiang traveled all over China and Tibet, absorbing the smallest particles of the identity of Eastern culture.
Gunpowder art instead of paint
Guoqiang has a good command of the classical techniques of painting and calligraphy. However, when he tried to make his own way in the visual arts, he looked for something special for a long time. And he found one of the most important wonders of chemistry that China has given to the world.
He created his first painting with gunpowder back in 1984. He made a pyrotechnic explosion on plain paper. The blackened areas and scorched holes formed a striking ornament. He hadn’t even expected such a thing, but he found it beautiful. It was a turning point in his career. Now he could glorify his homeland not only with his art, but he could emphasize its importance even with his choice of materials.
After Tsai moved to Japan for ten years, he still didn’t give up the main highlight of his paintings and continued to experiment with composition and impurities. He deftly intertwines two worlds: reality and fantasy, playing with space and time. At the same time Tsai manages to find a balance in a perfect combination of ancient traditions and modern technology. Gunpowder as a source of artistic creation defines his identity, turning this explosive substance into transformative energy of his talent.
But gunpowder is not the only reflection of China in Guoqiang’s paintings and installations. His work also includes other symbols of the Chinese tradition, such as acupuncture, kites or the dragon. He does not forget the eternal struggle of opposites: Yin and Yang, East and West, destruction and creation. From modernity, he has taken roller coasters, ships and computers.
Extraterrestrial Art or “Project for Aliens”
Experiments with gunpowder began in China and continued with the move to Japan. In the end, simply “setting fire to” paper was not enough for him. Now he wanted to do something large-scale using explosives. Tsai decided to create explosions that would be visible from space. Thus, the “Project for Alien” series was born.
In 1898, after unrest in China, he created a tent in the square, just like the protesters, filled it with gunpowder and set it on fire. The calculation was that even if the explosion itself only lasted a few seconds, it should be visible even from orbit. At that time, he had no money, so he often had to melt down car engines from the junkyard to obtain precious metal. When the installation time ran out, all the metal was sold for pennies to automobile factories.
The most famous of all the “alien projects” was No. 10: the extension of the Great Wall of China. His pyrotechnic skills and astounding knowledge of physics and chemistry made it possible to create a wall of fire 10,000 meters long in the Gobi Desert, extending the duration of the Great Wall of China by as much as 15 minutes.
Tsai had to use his leadership skills to overcome significant bureaucratic and financial obstacles. For example, to offset costs, he worked with a Japanese travel agency. This made it possible not only to sell Japanese “front row tickets” to the wall of fire, but also to do the Tom Sawyer thing: Tourists were happy to pay modest sums for the opportunity to install their own pyrotechnics wicks.
In 1995 Tsai carries out “Restrained Violence – Rainbow”: a project for Alien No. 25, at an operating power plant in Johannesburg, South Africa. The project is a response to Nelson Mandela’s slogan “Violent Resistance. This is the first time the artist has put an emphasis on a discussion of violence and society.
How internationally known is Cai Guoqiang
Tsai quickly gained international recognition during his time in Japan. When he moved to New York with his family in 1995, his fame only increased.
Guoqiang was selected as a finalist for the Hugo Boss Award in 1996 and was awarded a Golden Lion during the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. In 2007 Tsai received the seventh Hiroshima Art Prize.
In all this time, Tsai has had time to show his art in all corners of the world. He has traveled to Europe, America, Africa and Asia. His first solo exhibition in Brazil, “Cai Guoqiang: Da Vinci do Povo,” toured three cities across the country in 2013. That year it was the most attended exhibition by a contemporary artist worldwide, with over a million visitors.
Tsai did not skimp on Russia, either. In Moscow, he created an installation devoted to the events of the October Revolution. For this, he needed baby carriages, which were kindly provided by Muscovites.
What Cai Guoqiang is doing now
Even though Cai left his native China long ago, he returns to his homeland from time to time. When he first migrated, many officials did not completely disown him, but they balked, accusing him of selling out to Western capitalism and disregarding his Chinese roots. Soon, however, such talk subsided: Tsai had no intention of abandoning his ancestors and his homeland, emphasizing this in his art in every possible way.
In recent years, he has lived in New York with his family, is engaged in creativity and the upbringing of his youngest daughter – the older has long since gone into free flight. Family values are very important to him. This is clearly evident in the way he lit a five-hundred-foot ladder into the sky to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday.
Can you draw with gunpowder?
The process of drawing with gunpowder is actually quite simple. First, you need to create a sketch or outline of what you want to draw. Then, you need to use a stick to make a small hole in the surface where you are going to be drawing. Next, fill the hole with gunpowder and light it on fire. Lastly, quickly draw your design onto the surface before the fire goes out.
Can we make gunpowder at home?
Gunpowder is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. It is used to create an explosion.
The first step in making gunpowder is to make a paste by mixing together the sulfur and charcoal.
Next, the paste has to be heated with the potassium nitrate until it turns into a liquid.
The final step in making gunpowder is drying it out so that it becomes hard again.