Art That Goes Bang: Cai Guo-Qiang's Gunpowder Paintings

Cai Guo-Qiang is making some of the most interesting and beautiful art of our time. He's been a prominent artist around the world for twenty years or so. I'm embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about him until just last year when a friend posted photos of his installation at Deustche Guggenheim in Berlin from 2006 on Facebook. The piece that struck me is called Head On and it fills a large room with a pack of 99 life-size wolf replicas leaping into a plate glass panel. It's incredibly moving and gorgeous.  

Cai Guo-Qiang: Head On (2006). Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany. Photo by Hiro Ihara and Mathias Schormann

So, I jumped at the chance when MOCA announced that Cai Guo-Qiang would be doing a series of paintings with imagery produced by exploding gunpowder here in LA and that the museum needed volunteers to assist on the project. I'm not sure why they accepted my application – I know they had far more interest than available slots, and most of my fellow volunteers were artists or art students. But I got lucky. Here's what happened.  


MOCA staff ushers 100 volunteers into bleachers in a large studio space within The Geffen Contemporary. Representatives from Cai Guo-Qiang's studio let us know that Cai does not speak English and they will be guiding us through the process. Cai will be on hand to give us direction and feedback via the studio team. They also let us know that a documentary crew will be shooting the entire process and we should not wear skimpy clothing or items that could become revealing when we are hunched or stooped over. I hear this as "please nix the low-rise jeans that expose your ass crack when you bend down."  We learn that pyrotechnics are a big part of making these artworks, and that this will be loud and smoky and that we should not participate in the process if this bothers us. I'm so in.  

Cai Guo-Qiang and Kelly from Cai Studio organize the volunteers. photo by Russell Bates

DAY TWO – PREP (SUNDAY 10am-8pm)  

We are assisting on a 11×35 foot work entitled Chaos in Nature that will be detonated tomorrow. The painting depicts natural disruptions like volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis that are interwoven on seven panels.   Our tasks for the morning:

Plot out seven perfect adjoining areas on the floor that the canvas will lie on. This should be a team-building exercise for executives. Have you ever tried to draw a perfectly straight 35 foot line on the ground with a team of strangers? It's not so easy. It takes  us several tries and there is a small Lord of the Flies-style power play to determine who will be the the line-drawer. I stay out of it and operate the tape measure.  

Properly place specially-made canvas stretchers on the floor that prevent air from accumulating under the canvas. This is important because normal canvasses have an empty space underneath that would give the explosion too much air when the gunpowder explodes. The pyromaniac in me (ok, the pyromaniac that is me) craves the bigger boom, but we must stay on goal.  

Perfectly tape together large sheets of cardboard without any gaps or overlap (that air/smoke/fire thing again) to be used as a giant stencil for the piece. This sounds easier than it is – lots of people start taping together cardboard before we determine how many sheets we need and how they should line up. There is a bit of chaos and then it all comes together.   

Cai Guo-Qiang walks over with a Sharpie mounted on a 4-foot stick and begins sketching. He is looking at photographs of natural phenomena and glancing at the images to help him understand the flow and motion of the natural events. He also has a sketch he made earlier to reference. He uses his entire arm when drawing to make sure that his motions mirror the flow of what he is depicting. This is the point where I realize that I am in the presence of a genius.

Sketch of Chaos in Nature, pencil on paper, 2012, courtesy Cai Studio

Cai comes back to the cardboard with a paint brush attached to another stick and begins fleshing out the image in black ink. Have I mentioned that this thing is huge? The brush strokes are like large-scale calligraphy.   

In the afternoon we cut out stencils of the art that Cai has painted. Our fancy tools: box cutters. Cutting nuanced brush strokes out of thick cardboard this way is difficult. By the way, it's about 100 degrees in the workspace, and we're wearing long-sleeved non-ventilating polymer volunteer t-shirts that we're supposed to wear the entire time we are there. We are hot and sweaty. We are all on our knees on the concrete floor carving up the painting. There are many, many pieces. Cai wanders among us shyly. He sometimes stops and comments on work via a translator. He is clearly in control here and has a vision that we cannot see.  

We also need to cut stencils for Friday's super-huge painting entitled Childhood Spaceship. There are all sorts of printed-out images of everything from Albert Einstein to galaxies to hieroglyphics. I realize that Cai has given the volunteers some serious artistic license: there are lot of decisions to make when you're cutting a stencil out of a photograph. I cut out aliens and spacemen and The Griffith Observatory with a ladder from the sky descending into it. The artist comes over and praises my work at one point and I am ridiculously buoyed.   

There are the aliens I cut out, post detonation! Detail from Cai Guo-Qiang, Childhood Spaceship, 2012, gunpowder on paper, 400 x 3300 cm (157 1/2 x 1299 3/16 in.), commissioned by The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, photo by Russell Bates

My knees, hands and back are all extremely sore from working on a concrete floor all day.   


Reps from a pyrotechnics company give us a safety talk. We are issued ventilation masks, goggles, rubber gloves and booties and told to wear them every time we are near gunpowder. We soon realize that we are going to be around gunpowder for the rest of the day and that none of us want to suffocate in all that gear. The booties stay on and we bail on the rest.   

30 of us move the giant stencil for Chaos in Nature on top of the canvas. The stencil is very delicate in places and we sometimes need to use poles to keep parts of it from dragging and ripping. Everything needs to be perfectly lined up on those lines we drew on the floor yesterday. There is some stress involved here.  

Cai begins applying gunpowder to the stencil. He mostly tosses it onto the canvas in graceful, measured movements. He picks different colors and textures for different areas – some are powders and some look like small rocks. He is paying special attention to the volcano in the piece. We learn that he is getting a bit worried about the large amount of gunpowder he has put on the volcano area and that it might burn through the canvas.   

Cai Guo-Qiang sprinkling gunpowder onto canvas to create Chaos in Nature, Los Angeles, 2012, photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

We now need to carefully remove the stencil. This is a gigantic piece of cardboard and we need to lift it in one slow motion so as not to disturb the gunpowder on the canvas beneath. We also really, really can't have scraps dragging on the canvas and wrecking the drawing. The good thing is that we're all meshing as a team and are finally understanding our roles.   

Shadows created by stencil for Chaos in Nature, Los Angeles, 2012, photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Cai then begins painting more gunpowder onto the canvas around where the stencil was. He sometimes uses the powder and sometimes uses a brush on a stick doused with a gunpowder solution. This guy seriously likes gunpowder.  

Now we need to find all of the scraps we cut out from the stencil and place them atop the canvas from the exact place they belong. I love this part – it's like a huge and delicate jigsaw puzzle. This takes a couple of hours since there are so many cardboard scraps. This is another time where we SHOULD NOT DISTURB THE GUNPOWDER.  

Cai lays several pieces of glassine on top of different parts of the original stencil and begins to draw more detail of the natural phenomena on them. We then cut all of these out and place these stencils precisely on the canvas where they get the gunpowder-painting treatment. Cai adds other painted details at this stage as well. I think the volcano may really erupt when this thing is detonated.  

Cai Studio assistant with volunteers cutting glassine paper to create Chaos in Nature, Los Angeles, 2012, photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Museum patrons begin to arrive for the detonation and we're not nearly ready. It's weird to be observed while we scuttle about our tasks. Stress is building…  

We make a cardboard blanket to go on top of the stencils. This needs to be the same size as the stencil and have no gaps in it for air or fire to get through. We are all trying to show off and get things done quickly and efficiently now that we have an audience.  

The pyro guys begin placing fuses throughout the painting and around the perimeter. They talk to us again about the detonation process. We get giant cotton pompoms that we will use to extinguish embers and flames and remind us that we REALLY need to put on the masks, goggles and gloves now.  The cardboard blanket goes atop the canvas, stencils and fuses so that the explosion won't get too much air when it goes off. We place bricks and stones atop the especially gunpowder-heavy areas, especially the volcano. We're ready.  

Cai talks to the audience through a translator. He morphs from this quiet, almost shy man to someone who loves the spotlight. He tells jokes. He talks about the process. He worries aloud about the volcano getting out of control. He praises the volunteers and we cheer.   

We've been waiting for Cai to light the fuse for three days, but it still seems sudden when he does. The explosion is extremely loud and the room fills with smoke. We scurry about, pom-pomming out small fires. Many of the volunteers move away from the fires, I am drawn to them. We extinguish all of the mini-fires quite quickly. Then we carefully lift all of the layers off, one by one. Some parts are burned through. The painting looks to be covered in dirt. We mill about and clean up all of the blown-up pieces.   

Ignition of Chaos in Nature, Los Angeles, 2012, photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Art handlers come in to lift the canvases off the frame and lean them against the wall. The excess gunpowder falls off. And oh my god, the painting is stunningly beautiful. The whole time we were building it, I wondered if all of the elements would work together to make a cohesive piece of art. I also had a some doubt as to whether the detonation process was a viable art form vs. a gimmick. The whole thing succeeds beyond what I'd imagined.   

Cai Guo-Qiag, Chaos in Nature, 2012, gunpowder on canvas, mounted on wood as eight-panel screen, 340.36 x 1066.8 cm (134 x 420 in.), commissioned by The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, photo by Joshua White, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angele

Prior to the detonation, Cai had spoken about working with large groups of volunteers and how it's a lot like painting with gunpowder – you can't completely control what happens. I love how comfortable he is with leaving parts of the process to chance. In previous works he's released a live pigeon to track paint around a canvas and used electric fans to paint cyclones.  

Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibition is called Sky Ladder and includes three gunpowder paintings, a crop circle installation hanging from the ceiling, and videos of his previous work around the world. It's his first west coast solo exhibition and opens at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles on April 8. There is also a Public Outdoor Explosion Event called Mystery Circle for MOCA members on April 7 that opens the show. There will be flying saucers and rockets and aliens. I'll be there, and you should be too if you can. It's a fascinating look at one man's vision expressed through the hands of many workers.

Thanks to MOCA for photos and access, to Vanishing Angle Films for video and Russell Bates for additional photos.