Cai Guo-Qiang

Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop and Museum

At sunset on December 11, 2009, before a freezing crowd and hundreds of commuters passing by, Cai Guo-Qiang ignited a fifty-foot-tall flower made from a gunpowder fuse that he had suspended on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s columned facade. With a swarm of bright explosions, then a minute of sparklers streaming and smoking in the wind (while flames rose from tar paper protecting the sandstone steps, and men sprinted up with extinguishers), followed by a few deafening booms, Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project, 2009, provided a moment of communal distraction—and a surprisingly poetic rumination on the brevity of life. Originally planned in 2004 by Anne d’Harnoncourt, the PMA’s beloved leader for a quarter century, and Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud, the founding director of the city’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, Cai’s Philadelphia debut evolved into a memorial to d’Harnoncourt after her sudden death in 2008: an homage to both her utopian dream of making art universally accessible and her four-decade friendship with Stroud. Given the gravitas of the pre-ignition ceremony (not to mention Cai’s privileged status in the art world), it felt tacky to wonder about the cost of the event, but standing in budget-challenged Philly among fur-hatted VIPs, that nagging question did temper the art-for-all populism a little.

Gunpowder, in Cai’s expert hands, entails not only a spark and its extinction, but a process and its traces, like memory or a life’s work. Inside the PMA, a suite of monumental gunpowder drawings from 2007—vaguely reminiscent of Leon Golub’s 1965–67 “Gigantomachy” paintings, with their abraded surfaces and intimation of violence—evoked the four seasons in virtuoso “brushwork.” (The installation was insightfully situated: From the room next door, the overlapping voices reciting the days of the week in Bruce Nauman’s Days, 2009, amplified the sense of feebly structured epic time, while overhead, hanging on filament, a procession of tiny golden boats seemed to float into the afterworld—via the “moon” in Sol LeWitt’s On a Blue Ceiling, 1981, in the passage beyond.) But the human element essential to Cai’s work comes to the fore in his explosion events. Fallen Blossoms was executed by a number of individuals working in plain sight: dozens of scurrying assistants, photographers, and technicians, all watched over by firefighters. On the top floor of the Fabric Workshop across town, where Cai later the same evening ignited a 120-foot-long drawing titled Time Scroll, the team included helpers who ran around in the sweetish smoke dousing tongues of flame after the trail of gunpowder, arranged on stencils to illustrate narrative episodes along the silk scroll, had dramatically burned out. Both Fallen Blossoms and Time Scroll are not only performative but collaborative, and gain traction from the idea of igniting a risky spark amid a group of people—mirroring d’Harnoncourt’s own role as visionary curator and director.

Downstairs at the Fabric Workshop, Cai uncharacteristically brought his own alchemy of destruction down to earth with Time Flies like a Weaving Shuttle, 2009–2010, in which five weavers from a remote village in China sat at huge wooden looms producing tapestries based on episodes from d’Harnoncourt’s life, as related by Stroud. In the context of an exhibition featuring fire, water, ashes, and smoke, the women in their bright traditional costumes appeared uncomfortably framed as a fifth element, a “natural” force of storytelling and creation. But a slier set of concerns emerges when one considers these weavers, busy with their “women’s work,” in relation to the pioneering figure of d’Harnoncourt herself. In marked contrast to the machismo of Cai’s favored medium and his expressionist and Conceptualist context, Time Flies like a Weaving Shuttle gives painstakingly slow, handled form to the incidental moments that make up a life and a friendship—complementing the existential, extravagant drama of hypnotic combustion with a humbly celebratory, determinedly constructive feat of labor.

Nell McClister