The Cleveland Art Museum is impressive. It lives up to Insider’s list of the top 25 museums in the United States; Cleveland’s Art Museum ranks #2 (Grebey, 2016). I visited this past June and was not disappointed. The permanent collection is phenomenal, but so is the exhibit Cuyahoga River Lightning by Cai Guo-Qiang. The exhibit is in a small gallery, but with big scope. When walking in you see three very large canvases and you smell something—a faint burnt smell. What is it my husband asked? It’s the scent of gunpowder. It’s because Cai Guo-Qiang’s works are created by using controlled explosions using a mixture of charcoal and saltpeter—gunpowder. Cai creates his work on long stretches of Japanese paper placed on the floor with pieces of cardboard stencils on top to shape his planned art work (image below). Cai invests considerable research and planning into all of his works, long before he gets to the final stage which is when he lights the fuse; it’s then an explosion happens and his work of art remains.
How appropriate that the Museum chose Cai Guo-Qiang to create an artwork using fire to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire—an event in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to the chemical pollutants from factories. Cuyahoga50 commemorates the historic fire (though it was one of several) by celebrating water and the progress made after the event towards clean water for all. I wasn’t familiar with the Cuyahoga River fire until seeing this exhibition. It was significant—the fire landed a story in Time Magazine and prompted a move towards environmental policies and a massive clean up initiative. The Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, was a symbol of polluted waterways and dirty rivers and lakes. Even Dr. Suess the children’s author referred to the pollution in Lake Erie in his book The Lorax, a story about environmentalism. In the story the Humming-Fish march out of a (very) polluted river, pollution caused by a factory: “They'll walk on their fins and get woefully weary in search of some water that isn't so smeary. I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie”.
Suess, removed the line referring to Lake Erie fourteen years later when he was contacted by two associates from the Ohio Sea Grant Agency who informed Suess that the river had been cleaned up; they politely asked that he remove the line from his story. He obliged.
There are three works in the exhibition; the main work, ‘Cuyahoga River Lightning’ was created specifically for Cuyahoga50. As for all of his works, Cai did extensive research for the project. An excellent documentary on YouTube (link below) includes Cai describing his process. It’s impressive. His aim is to embody the event. He spent nearly a year researching the river fire, as well as the Cuyahoga's features using Google maps and satellite imagery. He studied where the 1969 fire occurred, which he represented on the canvas by using extra gunpowder to highlight the exact location.
The Museum suggests the other works in the exhibition, Pine, Forest and Wolf (2005) and Late Carnival (2017) reflect the artist’s views on the “world’s diminishing natural reserves of fresh water”. I’m not so sure about that; regardless they are tremendous to experience.
These large scale works, though still impressive by viewing online, feel much different in person. It’s like you are immersed in something; it’s an experience that takes you out of the everyday. The faint smell of gunpowder adds another dimension.
The Fireworks Artist
Cai is an internationally acclaimed artist. Sotheby’s writes that Cai is a “member of the elite group of artists that transcends art world boundaries”. He currently lives in New York with his wife and two daughters. He's created an edgy studio that also serves as his home, fulfilling Cai's goal to combine his professional and family life.
Gunpowder is not Cai’s only medium for his work; he also uses interesting materials to create large scale sculptures, and not surprising he also creates phenomenal firework displays that are better categorized as 'performance art'. He’s created firework performances for audiences all over the world, including for the Beijing Summer Olympics. One of his most spectacular performances was in Florence, Italy in 2018. The 'City of Flowers in the Sky' was a daytime show outside the Uffizi gallery; an introduction to his solo exhibition at the museum. His exhibition Flora Commedia, and the fireworks performance were inspired by Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera. The spectacular series of explosions resembled flowers; colorful gardens like those in the painting. Below is a link to the YouTube video where Cai describes the show and his inspiration. I love how he is so enthusiastic.
I first learned about Cai through a podcast episode on Getty Arts & Ideas podcast show; it was interesting to hear Cai's perspective on art creation and his use of explosives. If you are in the Cleveland area I’d highly recommend visiting the exhibition, otherwise check out the links below to immerse yourself in Cai's art and unique story. Enjoy!
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