Art Talk: Beyond The Big Bang

Cai Guo-Qiang is one of China’s best known – and best-selling – contemporary artists. Over almost 30 years, he has carved, or more accurately, blasted a unique niche in the creation of large-scale, often public, works of gunpowder art.

It seems appropriate that the first major solo exhibition by a living artist at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art should be devoted to the multi-disciplinary and multilayered works of Cai Guo-Qiang.

“The Ninth Wave” features six new works commissioned especially for the exhibition, as well as a veritable greatest hits of Cai’s career. With the uniting theme of the exhibit being man’s fragile and ever-complex relationship with the natural world, China’s current environmental challenges loom particularly large.

“Cai Guo-Qiang addresses increasingly urgent environmental and ecological issues through rich and varied artistic explorations”, Gong Yan, the Power Station of Art’s Director, said.

“The deep humanistic concerns expressed in ‘The Ninth Wave’ have great significance in contemporary society”. The first work visitors come across in the Power Station of Art Foyer, also called “The Ninth Wave”, is an installation of a fishing boat from Cai’s home province of Fujian, packed with 99 stuffed exotic animals.

Rather than a Noah’s Ark-style salvation, these animals look to be on their last legs, with a white flag suspended above them – another indicator of the hopelessness of the situation facing the natural world.

“The ninth wave, in sailor-speak is the strongest, most powerful wave”, Cai explained as he led a special, preopening tour of the exhibit.

The most ground breaking – literally – new piece is another installation created in situ at the Power Station of Art, in which a 250-square-metre lake, containing 20000 litres of black ink, has been carved from the gallery floor, surrounded by the concrete detritus of its own construction.

The name of the piece, “Silent Ink”, is a play on the homonymic nature of the Chinese language, in which the words “silent” and “ink” sound the same.

“In China we have a saying, if you fall into the Yellow River, you can never get yourself clean. If you fall into this pond, that is definitely the case”, Cai joked, adding that he likes to spend time in this part of the gallery, as he finds the sound of the ink waterfall pouring from the ceiling into the lake soothing.

“Compared to other works in the exhibition, the boat with the animals, for example, this work is more abstract. It’s more spiritual in its conception”.

For those looking for new gunpowder works from Cai, “The Bund Without Us” is an impressive addition to his one-man genre. Created in a pre-exhibition event that opened up the creative process to the public, this large-scale (30-metre-long) gunpowder drawing is a haunting vision for the future of an iconic part of Shanghai.

“We imagined the city of Shanghai and the Bund, what it would look like if humans weren’t here and after several centuries, how nature would have taken it back”, the artist said.

On the buildings, which are overgrown with vines, cats look preoccupied by butterflies, tigers and wolves prowl the streets and a water buffalo takes a dip in the Huangpu.

“I imagined animals coming back into the city, but instead of depicting realistic animals, I incorporated visual elements from classical Chinese paintings. I was referencing work by Shanghai School of Painters, who were very influential in the rest of China in the late 19th to early 20th century”, Cai explained.

“These artists were probably the first group of artists in China to be in contact with Western culture and lived through one of the first stages of modernisation in China”.

Another gunpowder work created in the lead-up to the exhibit, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter” is in four-parts, each taking porcelain friezes as their starting point.

Depicting natural scenes – populated with plants, birds and small animals – the works were then topped with scattered gunpowder, which was exploded, somehow, without destroying the porcelain base.

“Actually, right after the blast it didn’t look like there was much damage, but when we went to install the work, some pieces fell off”, Cai said.

“If I could identify where the fragments came from, I glued them back on, the rest I didn’t think it mattered – in nature, petals and leaves also fall off”.

Of the previously exhibited works making an appearance as part of “The Ninth Wave”, be sure not to miss “Head On”. Also featuring 99 animals, this installation depicts a pack of wolves running and crashing into a glass wall, before getting up and doing it all again.

First created in Berlin in 2006, it has struck a chord with audiences around the world, who see something of the futile routine of modern life reflected in the wolves’ endeavour.

“This work has been quite well-received. People from different cultures all see themselves as one of a pack, going through the daily grind, going to work, coming home and then repeat”, Cai said.

Also featured are numerous video works, as well as short films depicting Cai’s most famous explosive moments, including his work on the opening ceremony of Beijing’s Olympic Games.

It’s not hard to see why Cai is one of China’s most sought after contemporary artists. Though the gunpowder gimmick draws a crowd, there really is so much more to these works than just a big bang. In fact, it’s the moments of tranquillity and contemplation that make his message all the more poignant.

“Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave” runs until October 26 at the Power Station of Art, 200 Huayuangang Lu, near Miaojiang Lu. Web: