Cai Guo-Qiang: Gunpowder Paintings

Ignition of Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, 14 September, 2018 © Cai Studio. Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy of Cai Studio

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio is its ‘main industrial artery’ and has been critical to the city’s development following its founding in 1796. Cleveland’s rapid industrialisation in the mid-19th century, which led to much prosperity and wealth, was largely due to the river and Lake Erie, and its connection via the Erie Canal to the East coast. However in the process, the Cuyahoga River became heavily polluted, and since the 1860s, had been on fire on no less than eight occasions. The artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s new work on the topic is currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The latest incident happened on 22 June, 1969, when an oil slick on the river ignited. In retrospect, this event became the emblem of an environmental crisis: It helped launch the First Earth Day in 1970 and forced the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, both of which brought environmental issues in American cities to national attention.

50th Anniversary of the Cuyahoga River Fire

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River Fire, which is being commemorated by the City of Cleveland’s 2019 motto, ‘A Green City on a Blue Lake’, and celebrated at The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) with the exhibition, Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning of three monumental gunpowder paintings. The show takes its title from the work, Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for Cleveland Museum of Art, which Cai specifically created for the anniversary, igniting it on 23 September 2018 in the presence of CMA trustees, its director, William Griswold and curators. Two earlier works also being featured include Pine Forest and Wolf (2005) and Last Carnival (2017).

The Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang (b 1957, Quanzhou, Fujian) experimented with the medium of gunpowder for the first time at the age of twenty-seven. Gunpowder had been readily available in his hometown through family connections, which gave him access to several domestic firecracker manufacturing businesses. Cai embarked on a new artistic methodology by working directly with gunpowder on canvas. These early efforts were often nothing short of disastrous. He was unfamiliar with gunpowder’s chemical composition, was unable to control violent explosions and thoroughly burnt his canvases. While crediting his grandmother for showing him how to use rags to stamp fires out, he soon realised that to be able to extinguish a fire was as important as to ignite one.

‘My fixation for this material comes from something fundamental and essential. I want to explore the relationship between the powers of destruction and creation. Artists have always been attracted to and been in awe of unpredictability, spontaneity, and uncontrollability. Sometimes these qualities can be social or conceptual. But sometimes they are very physical, biological, and emotional. The act of making gunpowder drawings is connected to a more-than-20-year interest in working two-dimensionally and to my childhood dream of becoming a painter.’

Cai Guo-Qiang Living in Japan

Cai lived in Japan between 1986 to 1995, and as his reputation grew in the 1990s, he moved to the US in September 1995. He is now universally acclaimed as a contemporary artist synonymous with gunpowder, whose explosive events and ignited drawings have become site-specific works used to celebrate historic occasions. In 2008, he choreographed the fireworks display for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.

The Chinese invention of gunpowder had been an accident; the unexpected outcome of a creative tradition using the forces of fire and heat. More than 1,000 years ago, Daoist alchemists searching for an elixir for immortality ignited a combustible mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate (saltpetre); it caused an explosion, and the discovery of huoyao, ‘fire medicine’. When introduced to the West, it was literally translated as ‘gunpowder’ as it was used in guns.

The Use of Gunpowder

Gunpowder represented a newfound artistic freedom for Cai. For a long time he ‘did not want to have anything to do with Eastern traditional culture’ and was ‘longing to depart from my own culture, which made me feel suppressed’. The medium helped him escape from convention, its natural spontaneity allowed him to create powerful impressions whose layers of colour and shade defy definition. ‘I use pure gunpowder as in fireworks consisting of nitrate, carbon, and sulphur. As for the coloured gunpowder paintings, I use mostly organic dyes, the smoke of which colours the medium of paper or canvas.’

In China, the creative use of fire and heat was later used in drawings executed with a hot stylus, or huobi, ‘fire brush’ made of metal or wood. These exercises left brown traces or indentations on thick paper as found in Qing-dynasty (1644-1911) album leaves. The effects appeared to be an imitation of traditional ink painting; the stylus’ pressure recall the deep incisions on stone steles or blind embossing (impressed patterns without colour) used in Chinese woodblock printing.

Cai’s ‘gunpowder drawings’ are preparatory works based on sketches for large-scale, monumental installations or explosion events. His ‘gunpowder paintings’ might be conceived as independent works. All these works are documented, being collectively termed a new type of Gesamtkunstwerk, from the German meaning a ‘total art work’ or ‘artistic creation’ – from preparatory sketches to their transfer onto canvas or paper to the actual explosion whose accompanying force, heat, sparks, smoke, smell, and sounds are recorded on camera, or by film footage.

The Gunpowder Paintings of Cai Guo-Qiang

Both Cai’s gunpowder drawings, or painting,s use either canvas or sheets of Japanese hemp paper, the latter’s fibrous structure being resistant to, and able to absorb the impact of the explosion. For Cuyahoga River Lightning, he chose a visually striking, aerial view of the river – before it feeds into Lake Erie – and extended the meandering river’s flow beyond the canvas. The name ‘Cuyahoga’ is of native American origin; derived from the Mohawk term, Cayagaga, for ‘crooked river’ and from the Seneca Cuyohaga, meaning ‘place of the jawbone’.

Cai approached the river in Daoist terms, as ‘the most important channel in the city through which life energy and water flows, it thus is the dragon vein of Cleveland. Through its flow and condition, you understand the fate of the city’. He explains however that ‘in a Western sense, (the river) would be the vital artery or vein, (but as) in Chinese (medicinal) tradition, one can diagnose the condition of the human body on the basis of feeling the pulse or its life energy flow’.

After laying out the Cuyahoga drawing on a large sheet of Japanese paper on the floor, Cai used a brush or marker on a long stick to transfer preparatory sketches onto a cardboard stencil. After cutting the stencil out, it was placed on the paper and sprinkled with gunpowder: Gunpowder fuses of various speeds were put on key points of the paper and more gunpowder drizzled on its surface. The curve of the river where the fire took place received massive doses for a more intense explosion. Finally heavy weights were placed on the surface to direct the force of the explosion horizontally, and enhance its effect. After the explosion, the stencil was removed and textile pads smothered any excessive burning. The drawing – with a dense accumulation of ‘burnt’ explosive spots and marks – was then lifted from the floor to be examined.

Cai says the work is ‘the most realistic of the three gunpowder paintings in the exhibition’ because ‘it portrays the disaster (that) the river – and the city – experienced 50 years ago. Of course I did not depict the smelly water or the suffering of the people. I rather expressed the spirit and energy of suffering in its state of disaster that then became the source for change and renewal’.

Pine Forest and Wolf

Another work on show, Pine Forest and Wolf (2005), is a gunpowder painting owned by the CMA, which presents man and nature coexisting in harmony with each other. Cai had created it ‘in the idealistic spirit of the Chinese literati who traditionally presented nature in a state of harmony with humanity’. Both animals, the wolf and the lamb ‘live in harmony without the interference of the human being’ (in the forest), but he preferred ‘the nature of the wolf’. The varying shades of brown and black in the composition, were achieved through covering parts of the canvas with stencils or fuses – which had an impact on the oxidisation process during ignition. Cai had employed ‘gunpowder, but also a stencil of thin glassine paper for the wolf, which was blown away during the ignition process. This is why the wolf now looks like a pack of wolves’.

The third large-scale work on show, Last Carnival (2017) was originally created for The Spirit of Painting in the Prado Museum, Madrid (2017/18) and illustrates Cai’s reflections about the state of our planet, wildlife, and the world’s depleting natural resources, in particular, water. It is an example of his recent use of coloured or polychrome gunpowder which encourages varied interpretations.

A small pond at the centre of the composition is surrounded by wild animals such as bears, lions, pandas, elephants, giraffes and wolves. But upon closer inspection, there are disturbing elements – the animals mate and play – and in many cases, mate with other species, which is taboo. The pond is also disproportionately too small to supply all the animals with water. A dark purple mushroom-shaped cloud or whirlwind in the background, however, suggests an approaching tornado.

‘Last Carnival uses a broader approach to the crisis our planet faces,’ explains Cai. ‘It is a fable-like approach. You see that even there is a last bit of water remaining on earth. Animals – or in a broader sense – living creatures on earth still do what they always do: they mate and play. The crisis does not change their behaviour. Even the cherubs are having a party in the sky. So for me, this represents an endless and eternal tragedy …’.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s fixation with gunpowder is described accordingly: ‘At the moment of ignition, energy accumulates. There is a suspended instant before the full explosion. It is a very blank and quiet moment. After you light the gunpowder fuse, you see the flame burn into the core, and there is a moment of silence before a loud explosion. From this point of view, gunpowder drawings and outdoor explosions share this common characteristic. Large-scale outdoor explosions connect the cosmos, nature, society, glory, and heroic sensation, and this kind of allegorical excitement is incomparable. What the indoor works provide us with is a physical interaction, an intimacy, and the complexity of delicate emotions in a serene atmosphere, which is very different from the outdoor works’.


Until 22 September, Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning, at The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Focus Gallery, Cleveland,

An interview with Cai Goo-Qiang can be found in the Asian Contemporary Voices on this website.