Gunpowder Art

While Cai Guo-Qiang isn’t necessarily a household name, his work is unforgettable. Most of us recall the footprints that mystically lit the sky for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony—Cai is the revolutionary artist we can thank for the display.

Odyssey (detail; 2010; gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as a 42-panel folding screen, 10.33x162 feet) by Cai Guo-Qiang

This year he comes back to earth, continuing his work in yet another nontraditional form—gunpowder. The process is dynamic: After laying out panels, Cai and a volunteer work crew apply an assorted mix of gunpowder to the panels and then ignite the drawing with a fuse. Various forms of control and a streak of chance cause an explosion that emits the energy and fumes that produce the final work. Visit for video footage of the artist and his team in action.

In 2008 Cai created Unmanned Nature, a project for the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (2008; gunpowder drawing and pond of water, 13x147.5 feet), in Hiroshima. Christine Starkman, MFAH curator for Asian Art, writes, “Cai Guo-Qiang’s work takes us from the world of the mythic to the modern life of China and the world around us. His project allows us to see that these worlds are, remarkably, inescapably connected.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), commissioned Cai to create Odyssey, a permanent installation for the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery. Visit for details. —Cherie Haas

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