Cai Guo-Qiang Brings His Gunpowder Art to Ohio in 'Cuyahoga River Lightning'

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  • June 09, 2019

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Creation of a gunpowder work. Photo by Kazuo Ono, courtesy Cai Studio
Pine Forest and Wolf (detail), 2005. Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, b. 1957). Exploded gunpowder, fuse, burned paper backed on wood panels; 230 x 308 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, 2006.134

Exhibition marks the first time works by the acclaimed Chinese artist are shown in Cleveland

Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning features three monumental gunpowder works by the internationally acclaimed, Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang, known for his explosion events, gunpowder drawings and installations, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. All three works address humanity’s relationship with nature and the planet’s diminishing resources of water. Presented as part of Cuyahoga50, a citywide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the last Cuyahoga River fire and celebration of the progress made toward clean water for all, Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning is on view now through September 22, 2019, in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery.

The exhibition borrows its title from the work Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, created especially for this show. In the drawing created in 2018, Cai chose to depict an aerial view of the Cuyahoga River from the bend where it burned to the point where it feeds into Lake Erie. He emphasized the waterway’s meandering form by extending the river beyond the canvas. Additional gunpowder amassed at the stretch of the river where the fire took place left a dense conglomeration of burned, dark spots and sparks, marking an increased intensity of the fiery ignition. The ignition of the drawing, recorded on video, is part of the exhibition.

Cai with his gunpowder work Cuyahoga River Lightning (2018). Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

“Cai is the first and foremost artist who makes use of the medium of gunpowder,” said Clarissa von Spee, chair of Asian art and James and Donna Reid curator of Chinese art. “An explosive mixture of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter—gunpowder is a Chinese invention known in China as ‘fire-medicine’ (huoyao). By directing the destructive forces of the explosion, Cai creates unique works of art, with outcomes often beyond his control. We are delighted that Cai Guo-Qiang agreed to collaborate with us on a project that commemorates a historic moment in Cleveland that had national repercussions and inspires awareness about our endangered planet today.” 

Cai choreographed the fireworks for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and has exhibited his gunpowder works in color at the Prado Museum in 2017 and the Uffizi in 2018.

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