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Cai Guo-Qiang

Artist 311

Cai Guo-Qiang

Explosion Art

The Birth of Tragedy


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

Cai Guo-Qiang (born 1957) is a Chinese artist who is known for his explosion art. His explosive work uses a diverse array of media, the most renowned being gunpowder.


His artworks often cross multiple mediums within art including drawing, installation, video, and performance. He often draws upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues in his work. He has lived and worked in New York since 1995.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)


He is viewed as one of the most significant Chinese artists who emerged in the 1990s. His use of the material, like much of his art, draws on both his Chinese heritage while also working through Western conceptions.


His often site-specific artworks respond to culture and history and establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

Guo-Qiang began to experiment with gunpowder in his hometown Quanzhou, and continued exploring its properties while living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, which led to the development of his signature outdoor explosion events.


His explosion art and installations are imbued with a force that transcends the two-dimensional plane to engage with society and nature.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)


On how he views gunpowder as a source of creative freedom Guo-Qiang mentions: ‘Initially I began working with gunpowder to foster spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic traditions and social climate in China at the time. Using gunpowder and making burn drawings were an extension of my childhood dream of being a painter.


Also from my childhood I remember the sound of fireworks going off. In my hometown, every significant social occasion of any kind, good or bad—weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home—is marked by the use of fireworks. They even use fireworks when they elect Communist party officials, or after someone delivers a speech.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

Fireworks are like the town crier, announcing whatever’s going on. I also remember the sound of artillery fire from a nearby army base directed at Taiwan. Gunpowder in Chinese means “fire-medicine”, it’s potentially therapeutic.’


Today’s focus is on his explosion artwork ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, 2020 which was realized on the Charente River, Cognac, France


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

The performance had different sections including:

Prelude: The Seduction of Lavender

Act I: A Poem—Drinking with the Moon

Act I: A Poem—Bring on the Wine

Act II: A Scroll of Calligraphy—Black Cursive Script

Act II: A Scroll of Calligraphy—White Cursive Script

Act III: A Drama—The God of Wine

Act III: A Drama—La Bacchanale


In these sections different combinations of gunpowder resulted in beautiful feats of colour, explosion and shimmer.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)


“Gunpowder is a spontaneous, unpredictable and uncontrollable medium. The more you learn to control it, the more obsessed you become with the material. It is like making love with your husband or wife.

The outcome is unpredictable and the same results are never guaranteed. Furthermore, in using gunpowder I can explore all my concerns: the relation to notions of spirituality as well as an interest in spectacle and entertainment, and the transformation of certain energies—such as violent explosions—into beauty and a kind of poetry.

An artist should be like an alchemist using poison against poison, which is very much a philosophy from Chinese medicine. Turning something bad into something good…countering the force. It’s the whole idea of the alchemist, using dirt, dust, and getting gold out of it. From gunpowder, from its very essence, you can see so much of the power of the universe—how we came to be. You can express these grand ideas about the cosmos.” - Cai Guo-Qiang


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

When asked on how he feels of the ephemeral nature of his work the artist explains: ‘I feel good with the volatile nature of gunpowder; I am looking for the unchanging through the always changing. Nature always changes but the fact of change—or evolution—never does. I also associate it with the discipline and spontaneity of calligraphy, that most honoured Chinese art form. In calligraphy the artist is a “perpetual amateur”. This is the model I identify with as an artist.’


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

An explosion is by nature a fleeting powerful moment and to use that as his brush strokes as Cai Guo-Qiang paints the sky is in a way an act of absurdity and I believe that’s why it is worthwhile.


Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 (15 minutes 21,915 fireworks , 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

Video link to The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 Realized on the Charente River, Cognac, September 25, 3:10pm, 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels Commissioned by Hennessy X.O

Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)
Video still, The Birth of Tragedy, 2020 ( 15 minutes 21,915 fireworks, 150 oak barrels)

Sources Consulted:




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