Gunpowder—invented by the ancient Chinese in their search for elixirs of immortality—now powers the destructive explosions of dynamite, bombs, and bullets. Intrigued by this complex history and the substance’s political implications, Cai Guo-Qiang has manipulated gunpowder to make “explosion images” since the late 1980s.
After many experiments, Cai devised an innovative method of controlling and containing these explosions to create gunpowder paintings on large pieces of paper: After composing the painting on the paper, he laid it on the ground and distributed gunpowder, then placed gunpowder fuses along the images he had sketched. Detonation took place under a cover. Blanketing the image area, this cover both increased the pressure of the explosion and prevented excessive burning.
Channeling the violence inherent within the materials used, the images he produces are at once powerful and delicate. In the work Mountain Range, included in this exhibition, dense, blackened areas indicate the magnitude of the artist’s explosion; the veins of gunpowder, which spread across the image, demonstrate his careful control and calculation.
“Gunpowder comes from nature. Its explosion and dispersal convey the concept of time and eternity. It is part of the energy of the universe.”—Cai Guo-Qiang 1
“Cai Guo Qiang – Making of a Gunpowder Drawing,” YouTube video, 3:31, posted by Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht, March 10, 2017.
Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as six-panel screen
90 9/16 x 181 7/8 x 7/8 in. (230 x 462 x 2.2 cm)
Collection of the artist