February 17, 2008

The Pyrotechnic Imagination

The Pyrotechnic Imagination

Cai Guo-Qiang says his favorite artistic moment is the pregnant pause between the lighting of the fuse and the detonation of the gunpowder. “There is a pressure in it to be preserved, and then it explodes,” he says. “This moment belongs just to the artist and the work.” On a breezy afternoon last September, in a large A-frame shed at the Grucci fireworks plant on Long Island, he was setting the stage. With the help of his wife, Hong Hong Wu, he cut a long green fuse into segments, then laid the pieces carefully on eight contiguous panels of handmade Japanese rice paper.

After three young female assistants placed stencils in the shape of an eagle’s wings, head and beak onto the panels, Cai, a onetime serious student of martial arts, moved gracefully as he sprinkled different grades of gunpowder, some custom-made for him. “I don’t know what the result will be, even though I preplan,” he told me, speaking through an interpreter in Chinese. “It is like making medicine — a little of this, a little of that, watch it and taste it a little and see how it is working. My work is like a dialogue between me and unseen powers, like alchemy.” (In Chinese, the word for gunpowder is literally “fire medicine,” an allusion to the eighth-century Chinese alchemists who accidentally invented it while searching for a magic elixir.) The assistants lifted the stencils, and Cai scattered and rubbed gunpowder in the white space that had been covered. Then the women put the stencils back on the panels, and he tossed on more gunpowder. The entire process was repeated for another image, this one of a pine-tree branch below the eagle’s claws.

A lean man who styles his hair in a brush cut with the sides buzzed, Cai (his full name is pronounced “sigh gwo chee-yang”), who is 50, wore his usual attire of a T-shirt, chinos and sneakers. He issued instructions in a very soft voice and beamed occasionally in a beatific, childlike smile. With a knife, he scored some of the green-coated fuse segments. “The reason I cut lines on the surface of the wrapping is to slow down the fuse,” he told me. “I spend so much time preplanning how to lay the fuses so as to have control and play against the power of the powder and the fuses. But when it gets to a high tide, it doesn’t always happen as expected, even if preplanned.” Wu tore other fuses, slower ones with a covering of brown paper, and Cai scattered the pieces of fuse where the black powder was densest. “If I wanted to depict the tree just as a tree, I could paint it,” he continued. “I want to find the power direction, the energy source that moves through the tree.” He considered the bird to be more problematic than the branch. “I want an eagle with a feeling of lightness, like floating in the air, and the tree at the bottom is very powerful. But it is difficult. It is easier to use gunpowder to make a powerful explosion than to show lightness.”