Gunpowder is uncontrollable and transient. Is it not the same with life?Cai Guo-Qiang
With the five year anniversary of Yin-Yang Peonies on the horizon, work began on an experimental two-layer print on glass and mirror. Technological precision and alchemical uncertainty, familiar territory for Cai, made an unlikely alliance as Snow Lotus No. 1 came into view.
Traditional mirror paintings in Quanzhou, China
My hometown's culture and craftsmanship are important sources of inspiration. Quanzhou is known for many artisanal techniques – from shipbuilding, temple construction and stone carving to ceramics, wooden puppets, paper-cutting, flower lanterns and mirror paintings.
The mirror paintings are painted on the back of glass, which is in turn painted over with mercury. In my younger days, a time of material scarcity, they were a very popular wedding gift. One can picture a beautiful scene of a bride getting ready in front of a mirror, adorned with colourful flowers and birds.
Making art with glass, mirrors and gunpowder
The initial inspiration came from a fascination with the long history of mirrors, I see in the concept of the mirror a spirituality that deeply interests me – or rather, a spirituality that I have always been pursuing. I first used glass and mirror for a gunpowder painting in 2018. Prior to that I had conducted some experiments with glass, but this specific combination started then.
The following year I exhibited the technique at the Guggenheim within their exhibition, Artistic License. The Non-Brand series imitated the works of modernist masters from the museum's collection such as Kandinsky, Rothko and Klein. The paintings evoked phantoms of the original creations – symbolising the way artists from different eras, myself included, reflect upon each other.
An explosive disposition
The core of my art is not actually about explosions, but about the unseen world, invisible forces and mystical powers that delve deep into our inner consciousness. Encounters with the unexpected, with things that are difficult to control are what I pursue.
The allure of gunpowder lies in its uncontrollable nature and unpredictability. My practice involves liberating it and working within the contradiction of a mastery of technique and a desire to lose control. It's an intersection of freedom and autocracy – an internal oscillation between democracy and dictatorship.
Over the years I have grown closer to gunpowder and gained proficiency in various techniques. It exhibits different chemical reactions on different materials such as canvas, hemp paper, ceramics, glass and mirror. Natural gunpowder is more powerful, coloured gunpowder more gentle – but because it burns more slowly it is more likely to burn through, and so on.
On one hand, you need proficiency to create a remarkable effect, but on the other you must betray that fluency. That's my paradox.
Ephemeral moments, and art that lasts forever
My artistic dialogue with eternity doesn’t revolve around the idea of permanence, but embraces fleeting moments – capturing the awe and mystery of the eternal within the chaos of the ephemeral. For me, the transient is eternal. In Chinese there is a distinction between eternity (永恒) and the notion of forever (永远). Eternity transcends time, whereas forever exists within it.
My gunpowder paintings preserve the passion of the young artist in me. I'm often told that it’s lamentable that I create with gunpowder, as the results are fleeting – unable to be seen permanently. In response, I explain that I use this transience to pursue eternity. By contrast, even when something seems everlasting, one cannot possess it forever. The use of gunpowder is uncontrollable and transient. Is it not the same with life?
Painting with gunpowder
We start by laying a mirror flat and then I sprinkle coloured or natural black gunpowder on it to create a pattern, image or design. Afterwards we place a sheet of glass on top of the mirror, set a gunpowder fuse and then, after covering the glass, ignite it.
After the explosion the glass can be flipped to create a disjointed composition, breaking its symmetry and generating different images. Alternatively, the glass and mirror panels can be made separately and combined to form a single artwork. In some cases they are made individually, then brought together and ignited once again, offering yet more possibilities. It’s about discovering how to fully liberate gunpowder while searching amongst the mysteries of the glass and mirrors.
From a young age I had a fascination with Feng shui and Qigong, and these topics are what eventually led me to discover gunpowder as an artist. The refinement of gunpowder in ancient Chinese culture can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty. During medicinal research alchemists discovered an explosive substance. They called it fire medicine. In Chinese, gunpowder, translated literally, means fire medicine.
I have a similar sentiment to that of an alchemist. In my creative process I am simultaneously conducting various studies on gunpowder – evaluating its colours, combustibility, reactions and how it interacts with different materials. In particular, the traces it leaves on glass and mirrors. I’m drawn to the unique transparencies, mutual reflections, complex spatial zigzagging and resulting temporal confusion.
During the pandemic we found ourselves isolated in the countryside and it was at this time that the idea of painting the snow lotus came to mind – perhaps due to a changing mindset, and the influence of the environment.
Glass and mirrors are cold in nature, so can highlight the tenacity of the snow lotus within its harsh, saline environment of high altitudes and low temperatures. The flower is also used as a medicinal herb in traditional Chinese medicine – revered as the king of herbs. The purity of its colour is also considered a symbol of love. It was a natural and spontaneous choice to make this work at that time.
From painting to print
As a creative reproduction Snow Lotus No. 1 is highly innovative. The reference artwork was created by joining two paintings. One on glass and one on mirror. To reproduce it, the artwork was taken apart, allowing both panels to be photographed in isolation, section by section. These sections were printed onto sheets of mirror and glass, then merged once more to form the print.
Another notable aspect of this edition is the absence of the dot-like patterns that are usually associated with prints. Instead, I find that there is no sense of a print at all. Gunpowder is a lot like fine sand. The three-dimensional traces of the explosion on the surface are perfectly preserved. UV printing technology allowed for the replication of this quality – capturing particles, smoke and other delicate details.
Being able to share the fleeting energy of gunpowder explosions with more people through this edition is important, and interesting. I'm always contemplating how an artist like myself can share my work with a broader audience. Alongside exhibitions in galleries and museums, limited edition prints like this one allow more people to collect and engage. For me, this is a worthwhile endeavour.