Gunpowder: A Symbol of Violence or a Beautiful Ritual for Humankind?

By Yiyun Hu, age 16, Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School, Shanghai

Explosions in art often represent fear and destructiveness; however, in Cai Guo-Qiang’s hands, they become the embodiment of mystery and beauty. In Guo-Qiang’s latest exhibition, “Odyssey and Homecoming,” which features hundreds of works that use gunpowder to recreate old masters of Western art, he shows us the shamanic power of gunpowder as an artistic medium that bridges nature and canvas in ancient and contemporary worlds.

In Guo-Qiang’s work, the ancient weapon is artistically transformed into a modern visual language. In “Painting Rubens’s Diana and Satyrs,” for example, Guo-Qiang uses speckled traces left by the explosion to create a psychedelic smoke fog over the forest, reproducing the intense atmosphere in a different way. Compared to oil paintings with classical and elegant styles, Guo-Qiang’s “Diana and Satyrs” uses randomness brought by the explosions to create graffiti and neon effects, which is more in line with the visual aesthetics of modern urbanites. Those traces of gunpowder explosions silently record the dialogue between old masters and the contemporary artist.

Traveling through time and space, Guo-Qiang first takes Chinese audiences on a journey through the Western classical period and contemporary art. Next, it’s time to go home. His virtual reality work, “Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City,” echoes “Homecoming” in the title of the exhibition. “It’s a daydream dedicated to the grand history of the Forbidden City,” Guo-Qiang said. He takes Shanghai audiences on a visit to a legacy thousands of miles away; he invited professional craftsmen to build a miniature version of the white marble palace and used V.R. technology to record the stunning fireworks above the palace. Cue the multicolored fireworks, and the Forbidden City, which has been sleeping for 600 years, gradually becomes filled with color and glows brilliantly again. The crackling sound of fireworks awakens the ancient relics of Guo-Qiang’s motherland.

Gunpowder is an ancient weapon that had been given the meaning of destruction and killing thousands of years ago. Now, Guo-Qiang has redefined it as a medium for connecting the past and the future. Using gunpowder as his language, Guo-Qiang speaks to the souls of the past masters; color is his vocabulary, texture is his syntax and fireworks are his voice. He is not restricted by identity, race or gender, nor does he make a specific group the target of his creations. Instead, he creates for all mankind as one human being. In an era when travel bans are still in effect, Guo-Qiang’s art takes audiences on a fantastic journey across time, place and Western art history.