When recently asked to identify some of the most compelling contemporary artists, Cai Guo-Qiang was a no brainer. Born in China in 1957, Cai now lives in New York City. He is best known for his use of gunpowder that he employs to create public performances (below) and “drawings” that document the explosions.
He creates his drawings by sprinkling gunpowder around paper cut outs of dragons, tigers and other traditional Chinese motifs that lay on top of paper or canvas. After removing the stencils he covers the drawing with cardboard, places stones on top to weigh it down and ignites it. After the explosion, the cardboard is removed to reveal an abstracted drawing. While Cai has some control over how the finished drawing looks, there is an element of chance inherent in working with explosives.
Gunpowder has a loaded history that traces back to ancient Chinese alchemists. They originally discovered it by accident while searching for an elixir that would provide immortality. Ironically, it was quickly co-opted by the Chinese military for war.
Knowing this, Cai’s work becomes conceptually meaty in addition to being visually spectacular. By using gunpowder for creation instead of destruction, Cai makes a powerful statement about the political climate of China and America post 9/11, earning him the distinction of being one of today’s most relevant artists.