Gunpowder On Canvas: Literally Explosive Art

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang stands in front of a gunpowder drawing, Desire for Zero Gravity, at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Cai uses a pyrotechnic process to burn shapes into large-scale canvases.

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang stands in front of a gunpowder drawing, Desire for Zero Gravity, at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Cai uses a pyrotechnic process to burn shapes into large-scale canvases. Joshua White/The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles hide caption

itoggle caption Joshua White/The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang uses gunpowder to create two kinds of art. First, there is a performance event where Cai ignites gunpowder on huge canvases. Marked by the explosion, the new canvases reveal designs that resemble forces in nature such as tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Before the explosion, volunteers help prepare the enormous canvases with cardboard stencils. i i

Before the explosion, volunteers help prepare the enormous canvases with cardboard stencils. Joshua White/The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles hide caption

itoggle caption Joshua White/The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Before the explosion, volunteers help prepare the enormous canvases with cardboard stencils.

Before the explosion, volunteers help prepare the enormous canvases with cardboard stencils.

Joshua White/The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Anticipation is a big part of Cai's visually stunning performances. Recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, 25 volunteers helped Cai prepare his canvases for a large-scale production. A feeling of wired expectation streamed through the high-ceiling-ed room.

To begin the artistic process, Cai sprinkles black gunpowder over enormous panels laid out on the floor. As he dances over the panel in slippers, Cai drops bits of cardboard and makes playful swirling movements with his arms.

Once the panel is prepared, Cai sits down on a chair and a coordinator alerts the audience to put on their gloves, goggles, booties and masks. As the volunteers pick up a giant cardboard stencil and slowly lay it over the canvases, Cai announces through his interpreter that he is ready to start the explosion.

"I need to hear a response, are all the volunteers ready?" he asks. "Are all the cameras ready?"

Watch The Explosion

See the ignition of Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder drawing, Desire for Zero Gravity:

With everything in place, Cai lights a fuse which sets off a bright, loud explosion that lasts only a few seconds. Smoke fills the room and chaos ensues as the assistants tamp out the flames with bundles of cloth and quickly remove the ragged stencil.

As the smoke settles, a cosmic skyscape — burned into the canvas during the explosion — is exposed. The works reveals Cai's imaginative use of explosives. His compositions display silhouettes inspired by nature with windy shapes blown across the canvas in dark browns and grays.

"He described it as a volcano but it looks like a tornado in the middle," says Geraldine Chung, an onlooker. "I don't know how he can anticipate the way things are going to come out."

Although Cai's thought-provoking work is marked by careful preparation, the designs on the canvases are a product of spontaneous action.

"There's always a prevalent sense of anxiety and uncontrollablity in the work — and that's a lot like life," he explains.

Cai's next explosion is set for April, to open his MOCA exhibit.

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