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MFA Houston Commissions Artist Cai Guo-Qiang to Create Gunpowder Drawing
Cai Guo-Qiang making gunpowder drawing Unmanned Nature, Hiroshima, October 2008. Photo by Seiji Toyonaga, courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art.
HOUSTON, TX.- Artist Cai Guo-Qiang has long been known internationally for his prolific and multi-disciplinary body of work that fuses the mythic and the everyday. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has commissioned Cai to create his first permanent, site-specific installation in a U.S. museum, in an event that will be open to the public: a monumental ethereal landscape that will line the four walls of the MFAH´s Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery, which opens October 17. The drawing, Odyssey, is the latest in the artist´s two-decades-long signature series of gunpowder drawings.

"Cai Quo-Qiang is a master of the poetic on a grand scale," commented Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. "His project for the Arts of China gallery will establish a singular vision for presenting the museum´s collection of art from China, furthering the dialogue between artworks from different time periods within the galleries, and presenting a fresh perspective on Chinese art across millennia."

"Cai Guo-Qiang´s work takes us from the world of the mythic, the source of creative life, to the modern life of China and the world around us," said Christine Starkman, MFAH curator for Asian art. "His project for the Arts of China Gallery brings these spheres together, and allows us to see that they are, remarkably, inescapably connected."

Cai will create the piece in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Houston over several days in early October. Engaging dozens of volunteers from the Houston area, the creative process will be accessible to the public on Tuesday, October 5 and Wednesday, October 6. (Capacity will be limited. Online registration for free tickets begins Monday, September 20, at www.mfah.org.) The work will span 42 panels totaling 10 by 162 feet. The artist and his crew will lay the panels on the floor, and then apply an assorted mix of gunpowder to the panels, before igniting the drawing with a fuse. The subsequent explosion, manipulated through various forms of control and mixed with a streak of chance, will emit the energy and fumes that produce the final work. The panels will then be installed back at the museum prior to the Sunday, October 17, opening day.

"The commission for the MFAH is a challenge and an exploration of how to show Oriental cultural relics. By creating a spiritual dimension that simultaneously displays ancient and modern art, the space becomes a portal where antiquity encounters the modern," the artist stated. "In recent years, through my gunpowder drawings, I have been exploring the free-spirited style in traditional Chinese painting. Odyssey not only symbolizes the voyage that Chinese culture has taken from antiquity to modern times, it is also about the ancient Chinese literati´s journeys of the mind between heaven and earth. It removes us from the materialism, the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, allowing us to seek self-exile, wander aimlessly and embark on a spiritual odyssey of our own."

The commission is part of the MFAH´s developing "Portals Project." This planned series of commissions from four contemporary artists is intended to provide a contemporary perspective onto the collections of Korean, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art that have been developed for this new suite of galleries over the past three years. Whether an actual portal, or a metaphoric one, the intent is to provide a fresh context for Asian art across millennia. Artist Do-Ho Suh has also been commissioned for the series, and will install his piece for the Arts of Korea gallery in January 2011.

Cai was born in the city of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, and studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. His work has since crossed multiple mediums within art, including drawing, video and performance art. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, he further explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale, and with gunpowder as his signature medium. The Houston commission illustrates the painterly quality and the eternally poetic world in early Chinese landscape ink-and-brush painting, with mist-shrouded mountains as the setting for details of rocks, vegetation and insects. The piece will be installed floor-to-ceiling.

Cai was awarded the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007, and the 20th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2009. He received worldwide attention for his work as the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In the same year, he was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. His work can be found in museum collections worldwide, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l´art contemporain, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, Queensland Art Gallery, Seattle Art Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Tate Modern, London. He lives and works in New York.

The Museum of Fine Arts | Houston | Cai Guo-Qiang | Peter C. Marzio |


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