Cai Guo-Qiang's Explosive Art

New explosions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art relate to an existing piece.

By Roberta Fallon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 5, 2010

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Gone in 60 seconds: For exactly one minute on Dec. 11, Cai Guo-Qiang lit up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Photo by Lonnie Graham

Explosives and gunpowder aren’t typically materials used to create fine art. But for Cai Guo-Qiang—who ignited a fiery, one-minute art memorial to the late Anne d’Harnoncourt on the Art Museum’s east plaza last month—the unstable chemicals and their noisy explosions are consummate art matter. They create beauty and excitement, and the burns that result are perfect metaphorical expressions of the birth, life, death and memory of a human being.

Cai’s spectacle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was called “Falling Blossoms: Explosion Project,” and it was gone in a blink, followed by another gunpowder burn at the Fabric Workshop and Museum later that night. (Videos of both are available on YouTube.)

Cai Guo-Qiang at Philadelphia Museum of Art "Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project" from K Halliday on Vimeo.

The events are part of a multi-site exhibition of Cai’s works. The planning for the show began when the late PMA director and her long-time friend Marian Boulton Stroud, founder of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, decided to host joint exhibitions of the Chinese artist’s works at their respective museums. When d’Harnoncourt died in 2008, the plan transformed to honor her and to honor themes in Cai’s work, the ideas of life, friendship, death and renewal.

At the PMA, you can see four massive, wall-spanning gunpowder drawings by Cai along with a flotilla of 99 tiny golden boats floating in a meandering line above your head. The drawings—which curator of contemporary art Carlos Basualdo says have never been shown in the U.S.—are made when the artist ignites gunpowder on paper. The result is a constellation of scorch marks, holes, black dots and smudges where the fire skittered across its surface. The gorgeous and visceral works embody the explosions they briefly were. They look like charcoal drawings of fireworks instead of the effects of controlled chemical outbursts.

Perhaps it was their size—they span the walls from ceiling to floor—or their installation in the windowless corridor where they seem to close in on you as cave walls would, but there is the feeling of something ancient and supernatural in these beautifully brut drawings full of life, death and hope.

Basualdo claims that Cai’s works, so much about memory and the passage of time, are perfect for Philadelphia, which has a fixation on its own history. Basualdo compared Cai to Cy Twombly, whose large installation “Five Days at Illiam” is also an explosion of marks and colors on large, wall-size panels. The comparison of the works is apt, and the PMA should open its pocketbook and welcome the Cai drawings into the collection. ■

For more on the Philadelphia art scene go to

“Falling Blossoms: Exploding Project” Through March 21. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Lynne and Harold Honickman Gallery, 26th St. and the Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 215.763.8100.

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