Revolutionary Artist Cia Guo-Qiang

By Emily O’Neil ‘21

Cia Guo-Qiang is an artist who uses gunpowder to create his paintings on canvas and creates “live” art pieces with fireworks. His work is visually intriguing, drawing the viewer in to wonder at and admire the piece.

Born in 1957, in Quanzhou City, Fujian Providence, China, Cia currently lives and works in New York City. Cia studied stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute from 1981 to 1985 and attended the Institute for Contemporary Art: The National and International Studio Program at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City. Cia is one of the first Chinese artists to expose the world to contemporary dialogues in Chinese art. He began to use gunpowder to adopt his spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China. While living in Japan (1986-1995) he explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, leading him to his development of these signature explosion events.

These explosion projects aim to establish an exchange between viewers and a larger universe. Cai draws on a variety of symbols, materials, narratives, and traditions adding in elements of Feng Shui, Chinese medicine and philosophy, images of dragons and tigers, roller coasters, computers, vending machines, and gunpowder for his work. Since the September 11th tragedy he has reflected on his use of explosions both as material and as a metaphor.

“Why is it important, to make these violent explosions beautiful? Because the artist, like an alchemist, has the ability to transform certain energies, using poison against poison, using dirt and getting gold,” he explained on the website

The use of gunpowder carries deep meaning: the material, comprised of minerals that take thousands of years to form, has an extensive lineage in Chinese history as an element of traditional Chinese medicine believed to help make one immortal. The relationship between ephemeral and immortal of connecting heaven to earth, is a key theme for Cai: Spirituality. Cai uses as a constant avenue of inspiration as he explores historical Chinese traditions like Taoism, Buddhism, Feng Sui, and others. His regular use of black and muddied monochrome colors stands for the purity of the undistracted spiritual being.

Cai experienced the firsthand effects of society falling to a totalitarian regime in China. His work often promotes political ideas of revolution and the romance of idealism, to inspire people to consider ways to be partly responsible for a more open sense of the world, as explained on Cai believes that destruction births construction running in a continuous cycle. Seen through the appearance of the political, the spiritual, or the personal, this inherent cycle of life and death touches all his work, his explosive methodology becoming a metaphor for this dance. As he says, “I’m exploring the connection to unseen power.”

Through his different art pieces, Cia demonstrates the freedom of an artist to use any material any way that they can and confront the ideals of what an artist should be doing. He finds ways to fuse many different types of artwork together, demonstrating his skill as an artist that had the opportunity to be featured at the magnificent Uffizi Galleria in Florence, Italy for four months. Not many artists have this remarkable opportunity.

For more information on Cia Guo-Qiang visit his website and his Netflix Documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cia Guo-Quang.

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