Photo by Simon Norfolk
Cai Guo-Qiang says his favorite artistic moment is the pregnant pause between the lighting of the fuse and the detonation of the gunpowder. “There is a pressure in it to be preserved, and then it explodes,” he says. “This moment belongs just to the artist and the work.” On a breezy afternoon last September, in a large A-frame shed at the Grucci fireworks plant on Long Island, he was setting the stage. With the help of his wife, Hong Hong Wu, he cut a long green fuse into segments, then laid the pieces carefully on eight contiguous panels of handmade Japanese rice paper.
After three young female assistants placed stencils in the shape of an eagle’s wings, head and beak onto the panels, Cai, a onetime serious student of martial arts, moved gracefully as he sprinkled different grades of gunpowder, some custom-made for him. “I don’t know what the result will be, even though I preplan,” he told me, speaking through an interpreter in Chinese. “It is like making medicine — a little of this, a little of that, watch it and taste it a little and see how it is working. My work is like a dialogue between me and unseen powers, like alchemy.” (In Chinese, the word for gunpowder is literally “fire medicine,” an allusion to the eighth-century Chinese alchemists who accidentally invented it while searching for a magic elixir.) The assistants lifted the stencils, and Cai scattered and rubbed gunpowder in the white space that had been covered. Then the women put the stencils back on the panels, and he tossed on more gunpowder. The entire process was repeated for another image, this one of a pine-tree branch below the eagle’s claws.
Check it out here.