Twentieth anniversary of APT: Detonating Cai Guo-Qiang


Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most significant Chinese artists of his generation. One of the earliest figures among the Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s to gain recognition outside of China, he was also a key participant in ‘The 1st and 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ APT2 (1996) and APT3 (1999).

Cai Guo-Qiang Concept for ‘Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared’ 1996

Working drawings for Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 / Pen and ink on Chinese paper / Seven sheets: 30 x 44.5cm (each) / Gift of the artist 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai-Guo-Qiang

Watch | Cai Guo Qiang Fireworks (rehearsal)

Cai Guo Qiang Fireworks (rehearsal) for APT2

Cai’s project for APT2 was a complex body of work entitled Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared. It was emblematic of his early career practice, which was best known for the artist’s spiritually cathartic use of explosives. Cai sought to use gunpowder to explore the parallels he perceived between the Chinese dragon and the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow serpent. This resulted in an 18-metre-long piece made up of 9 gunpowder ‘drawings’.

Cai Guo-Qiang Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared’ 1996

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 / Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper / Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) / Purchased 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang

David Burnett was present for the explosion that produced these drawings and I asked him about Cai’s work.

‘It was quite extraordinary. It was APT2, and it was just ramping up to a calibre of work that was clearly a huge leap from what we’d done before. It was quite early in Cai’s career, and every new work was — well — a new work. He was still coming to terms with the properties of gunpowder. It was chancy and it was unpredictable, and I guess that was what was so exciting about it.’

Cai Guo-Qiang carrying out a number of gunpowder trials and tests

‘A number of trials and tests were carried out, so there was a step by step process leading up to it. It took place in the car park of the Performing Arts Centre, which was chosen because it had doors that could be opened to the open air, so it was one of the few places safe enough for this event. It was early morning, with dozens of people on deck. There were fire professionals on hand and regulations were strictly observed.’

‘What was required was to control the burn after the gunpowder had gone off. It was of course on paper, overlain with other pieces of paper and with weights. It was really about timing. The paper had to be removed very quickly to let air in, so that the gunpowder didn’t continue to smoulder and burn through the paper. Everybody was at different points along the drawing to run across the paper with bare feet to pick up the weights and to get the paper off to stop the burning. The idea was to scorch the paper with a brown and black fumage.’

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared (details showing the burn after the gunpowder had gone off) 1996 / Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper / Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) / Purchased 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang

‘The explosion was noisy — surprisingly noisy! I knew it would be loud, but not that loud. The tests had all been conducted outside, but because it took place in a low-ceilinged concrete car park, it really amplified the noise. And none of us had really anticipated that there would be so much smoke. There was a point when it all went off that I couldn’t see where anybody else was.’

‘We had some photographers documenting it, which is great to have now. You realise the value of that kind of archival documentation. At the time you just think, oh well, we better do it, but now, this far down the history of this project, you realise how important that is.’

The twentieth anniversary of APT presents an opportunity to reflect upon the unprecedented transformations that have occurred in Australia, Asia and the Pacific over the past two decades.

Reuben Keehan is Curator, Contemporary Asian Art. QAGOMA
David Burnett is former Senior Curator, International Art, QAGOMA


The politics of persuasion: Work Team Contest


I was admiring Kim Hung II’s fascinating mosaic Work Team Contest when a thought struck me. It’s an interesting opportunity to look at the legacy of Socialist Realism with the work of Mansudae Art Studio in the DPRK (North Korea).

What struck me about Work team contest was that if you remove the brass band and floral arrangements, the image of workers celebrating efficiency targets isn’t all that different from the workplace imagery of white-collar corporate culture we’re a little more familiar with in the West.

Work team contest

Kim Hung Il, Artist, North Korea (DPRK) b.1965 / Kang Yong Sam, Artist, North Korea (DPRK) b.1956 / Work team contest 2009 / Glass tessera tiles / 350 x 570cm / Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artists

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Detail of Work team contest 2009

Do a Google Image Search for “corporate” or “business” and you’ll see what I mean. Managers pointing at whiteboards, fit and forward-looking young professionals, a sense of success and future-building — it’s all there. Even the composition is the same. The only major difference is that the colour red has been replaced with a distinct shade of blue.

It would be a mistake to say that ‘juche’ communism and liberal capitalism offer similar forms of social organisation. But the images used to ‘sell’ them do share unexpected patterns. In the marketplace of ideologies, it seems that little changes when it comes to the politics of images. There may even be a subliminal influence.

Certain aesthetic formations are adjusted to suit the widest possible range of political positions, even extending to those modes of communication we think of as apolitical, such as advertising and news media. The history of propaganda art certainly offers interesting perspectives on the visual culture of the present.

Details of Work team contest 2009

Delve deeper

Curator Nicholas Bonner takes a tour of work from The Mansudae Art Studio in The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT6).

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Feature image detail: Kim Hung Il and Kang Yong Sam Work team contest 2009

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Dots obliterate the internet!


It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since worldwide interest in Yayoi Kusama’s interactive project The obliteration room was sparked by a single post on Colossal, leading to appearances on Boing Boing, Creative Review, Huffington Post and Wired. (There’s way more obliteration and inspiration in our online catalogue, by the way internauts!)

Our press team have been busy following up media enquiries from London to Lahore, Bangkok to Buenos Aires, while every day the installation is re-blogged and re-tweeted to countless millions, and thousands pour through the gallery doors to grab a sheet of stickers.

The whole thing is proliferating like so many polka dots. If there was ever an indication of just how broad the audience for contemporary art has grown, this is it.

For me, the extraordinary popularity of this work and the ‘Look Now, See Forever’ exhibition as a whole raises the question about what it is about Yayoi Kusama that makes her so relevant right now — especially for an artist in her 80s. With six decades of work behind her, she’s in greater demand than ever, with another major exhibition of new work just opening at Osaka’s National Museum of Art, and her travelling retrospective opening this week at London’s Tate Modern before heading to the Whitney in New York.

Let’s be clear about this: her work looks great in reproduction, and people love a good, simple, elegantly executed idea. But what I find personally interesting is the way Kusama positions viewers at the centre of the work – not just in ‘The obliteration room’, but her in sculptures, installations, videos and larger paintings as well.

We’re beginning to see this approach more and more in museums everywhere. But it’s also perfectly in keeping with new media technologies and their impact on the way we experience, discuss and produce culture, life and love. Spectatorship has itself become a form of cultural production and participation, to a point where blogging and tweeting about a work of art can be seen as extensions of picking up a dot and pasting it to a wall, television or piano.

As I’ve said before elsewhere, Yayoi Kusama is more of her time now than at any other point in her career. This is one reason why we decided that ‘Look Now, See Forever’ would be an exhibition of new work. Watching dots obliterate the internet is just one more case in point.

The obliteration room at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) Brisbane in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever’ / Photographs: M Sherwood

Post Script
Late last week, the Tate Modern announced that The obliteration room will be included in its Kusama retrospective, which opens this week. It will be the first time the work has been recreated outside of Brisbane.

Additionally, a very generous benefactor has supported the Queensland Art Gallery’s acquisition of one of the four Flowers that bloom at midnight currently appearing in ‘Look Now, See Forever’. This major acquisition, which was only possible due to the Gallery’s ongoing relationship with the artist, makes QAG’s collection of Kusama’s work one of the most significant in a public museum outside Japan.

Yayoi Kusama / Flowers That Bloom at Midnight 2011 / Installation in ‘Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever’, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / Purchased 2012 with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.