Gunpowder Artist Cai Guo-Qiang Draws the Cuyahoga River with Fire

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

Last year in his New Jersey studio, Cai Guo-Qiang ignited the gunpowder for his work Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Stretching nearly forty feet long, the artist traced the familiar curving path of Cleveland’s famous river—from the site of the historic fire in the summer of 1969 to the mouth at Lake Erie—using explosions. The project is part of Cuyahoga50, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire and the remarkable recovery of its waterways to be held this summer across town. This piece, along with two other gunpowder works, will be on public display for the first time at the Cleveland Museum of Art from May 25 to September 22.

Chinese-born Cai Guo-Qiang is an internationally known contemporary artist based in New York City. Some may know the artist for his outdoor pyrotechnic displays (including the opening games for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and more recently his City of Flowers in the Sky over Florence), but he is perhaps best known for his gunpowder “drawings.” To create this entirely original medium, Cai sketches onto high-quality Japanese paper placed on the floor, sometimes laying down stencils cut from cardboard to shape the design. Next, he carefully sprinkles gunpowder along the lines, and covers the entire piece with large sheets of cardboard. He and his assistants weigh them down with bricks and rocks to control the force of the blast, and Cai lights the fuse. After the explosion, his assistants rush to stamp out all of the embers—the smoke clears, and what is left behind is the singed residue of his “drawing.”

Creation of the gunpowder work Cuyahoga River Lightning, 2018. Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio. The completed work goes on view beginning May 25.

Cai spent nearly a year meticulously researching the historic Cuyahoga River fire before making the CMA drawing, using archival materials, studying the city’s topography on Google Maps and using high-resolution satellite imagery. Curator of Chinese art Clarissa von Spee explains that “Cai asked me to send him a map of the river on which I had to mark precisely the spot where the fire broke out. He later amassed an additional amount of gunpowder on Cuyahoga River Lightning at the spot that echoes the bend of the river where it caught fire.”

Luckily for us, the artist entirely documented the creation of Cuyahoga River Lightning in photographs and video footage, from making the sketch, cutting out the stencil, and documenting the ignition. During the ignition, a drone was filming the explosion from above. The footage was used to produce a video that will be on view in the exhibition with the goal of illustrating the creation process of the work. The video also includes historic footage of the Cuyahoga River, making a direct connection between the newly created work and the historic event to which the artist is responding. Von Spee said of the film, “In my view, the video is so poetic and artistic that I consider it part of the work of art.”

To complement the exhibition, the museum has organized a free panel discussion with the artist on Wednesday, June 26 at 6:30pm. During the event, Cai will be joined in conversation with David Stradling, co-author of Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. The panel will be moderated by award-winning BBC broadcaster, cultural entrepreneur and former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Philip Dodd. The evening promises to be a lively discussion on Cai’s art, and social and environmental matters in the context of the CMA’s exhibition.

The museum will also show the film Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang in August. This free outdoor film screening will be preceded by art activities and outdoor games, and will include food trucks and entertainment This 2016 Netflix original film showcases the rise of Cai’s art stardom from childhood obscurity in Mao’s China to global art superstar, and his quest to realize one of his most ambitious projects, Sky Ladder. It also gives a behind-the-scenes view of his techniques, including the creation of his gunpowder paintings, pyrotechnic displays, as well as his spiritual, personal, and artistic struggles. As the artist says in the film, “playing with gunpowder set me free.”

Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning | May 25-September 22, 2019 in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery | This exhibition is 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. | Presenting Sponsors: Julie and Peter Raskind

Clarissa von Spee, the Chair of Asian Art and James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art, will be leading a series of gallery talks titled “Explosive Stuff—Cai Guo-Qiang, Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River” on June 4 and August 6 at 11:00am, and July 10 and September 4 at 6:00pm.