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Paint with gunpowder
Publication Date : 20-04-2012
It was another cold, windy, rainy afternoon on West Lake when artist Cai Guoqiang decided it was time to wrap up his four-day project - sketching the beauty of the lake.
Then, at 4:30 pm on April 18, Cai lit an incense stick and bowed, before lighting the fuse for his latest gunpowder painting, West Lake, which comprises a huge silk sheet, laid on a floating platform in the centre of the lake.
Meanwhile, a group of assistants, volunteers and firefighters watched, while a small, unmanned aircraft hovered above, took photos of the gunpowder painting process.
Flames erupted and smoke rose from the bolt of silk laid over the basketball-sized platform. The result was like a traditional ink painting, mirroring the landscapes of the nearby Lei Feng and Baoshu pagodas.
Beneath each of the paintings, there was an identical one, which Cai says will create the visual effect of shadows when the works are exhibited.
After he had finished, Cai made gunpowder sketches of West Lake on 2,000 square meters of silk.
"The final effects are what I desired. I am really blessed," he says.
He feared the humid weather and wind would ruin the art project he had been working on for months.
"The creation of gunpowder art is very much like love-making. There's a lot of uncertainty. The results come only after the climax," he says, with a smile.
Known for his pyrotechnic projects worldwide, such as the big footsteps in the night sky during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, the 55-year-old calls the Hangzhou art project "a spiritual homecoming".
Cai says he has been enamored Hangzhou as a child because of its poems and legends, and made his first visit in 1978 for an exhibition about French art, describing it as "love at first sight". "For years, I have longed to create a great work for the city," says Cai, who believes West Lake represents the soul of the city.
Cai's art project coincides with the anniversary of West Lake's UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listing.
"What struck me most was not just the natural beauty of the lake but also the leisurely and comfortable lifestyle, and the harmony between man and nature," Cai says.
He adds that his art project provided an opportunity to "go back in history and learn from it, and rethink the rapid social development of China, which has caused a slew of environmental, health and social problems".
After studying Hangzhou's art and history, he discovered that, while texts abound, not many paintings have survived the test of time.
Now "it's is my turn to capture the soul of Hangzhou, with my gunpowder painting. It is a whole new approach".
Cai's gunpowder adventure with Hangzhou began in September when he did a gunpowder painting on paper at Zhejiang Art Museum of Qiantang River's tidal waves.
The spectacular tides draw tens of thousands tourists from across the world every summer.
Cai says he learned a lot about drawing techniques from old ink masters such as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Zhai Jichang, who created the scroll Watching Tidal Waves, now in the collection of the Zhejiang Museum.
But Cai believes his work "may be more appealing to today's viewers, at least for its sheer size and stronger visual impact".
Cai's Qiantang tidal wave painting is 3 meters high and 36 meters long, while the West Lake gunpowder paintings are 8 meters high and more than 20 meters long.
The West Lake and Qiantang River tide wave paintings are the focus of Cai's latest solo show, which opens April 20 and will run until June 3, at Zhejiang Art Museum.
Cai has arranged his Hangzhou work in two circular galleries at the museum. Flimsy silk veils cover the gunpowder paintings, together with ambient lighting, and background music.
Co-sponsored by Rolex and the museum, the solo exhibition features 30 works Cai has created since the early 1980s.
"With my gunpowder paintings as a whole, I am in a dialogue with nature, our ancestors, and people today," says Cai, who calls himself a public artist, believing "artworks do not have meaning until they connect with the public".