Art: Pop Goes the Easel

Cai Guo-Qiang Compares setting off explosives to making love: you may know how to do it, but there's always room for surprise. The Chinese artist uses gunpowder—that ancient Chinese invention—as the primary material in his art, employing it in a variety of ways: in public art spectacles of explosions and smoky clouds, or burned directly onto paper to make remarkably elegant works that can hang on a wall. In the spirit of performance art, he's even put himself in the middle of a big bang. For a project in Germany in 1992, Cai sat in an enormous field surrounded by meticulously mapped circles and lines of gunpowder fuses. The fuses were lit, and the whole shebang blew up. The piece was meant to explore the primordial connection of man to earth, so Cai had sensors recording the shock waves in the ground, while electrodes monitored his own heartbeat. Explosive artworks are, by their nature, ephemeral, documented only in photos or videos—and in this case, his electrocardiogram. What it showed was that he was so calm he barely broke a sweat.

Cai is definitely cool, in every sense of the word. With the boom—pardon the expression—in contemporary Chinese art, he's become a star. In November, he broke the auction record for a contemporary Chinese artist when a set of 14 of his gunpowder drawings sold at Christie's in Hong Kong for $9.5 million. This week his first major retrospective opens at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (through May 28) and will later travel to Beijing and Bilbao. Sorry—there won't be any live explosions. But the show demonstrates his vast ambition and inventiveness, and includes painting, drawing, video, sculpture and installation art. The pieces at the Guggenheim echo the edgy allure of his grand public works—the paradox of light and dark, playfulness and danger, timelessness and mortality. If you can't make it to New York or Bilbao, too bad. But he's also working on the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, which will reach 4 billion people.

Cai, 50, has been toying with firecrackers since he was a boy in Quanzhou, China, where every public occasion called for pyrotechnics. His father was an artist, and though Cai grew up during the Cultural Revolution, his hometown on China's southern coast was far enough from the capital that officially banned folk traditions still thrived. Yet political marches and mobilizations also excited him as a boy, and Mao's exhortations to overthrow the old—with slogans like "No Destruction/No Construction"—clearly left their mark. Cai studied theatrical design in Shanghai—you can see where he picked up his sense of staging and drama—and when he turned to making art, he searched for something to make his own. He experimented with gunpowder—at first simply emptying those beloved firecrackers from his childhood. He'd place the powder on a painting and light it, which left areas of the canvas charred or smoky. He moved to Japan in 1986 and refined the technique, carefully controlling the gunpowder explosions on panels of fibrous paper, which created textures of crusty burns and softly luminous shadows. At times he hinged the panels together, like a traditional screen.

With this background, it might seem easy to pigeonhole Cai as a Chinese artist. But he's really an avatar of cultural globalization. For the past 12 years, he's lived in New York, though while working on the Olympics, he's been shuttling back and forth to Beijing, where he now keeps a studio. Though his work is shot through with Chinese history, philosophy and culture, Cai was also influenced by the international avant-garde of the '60s, '70s and '80s, including the work of such conceptual artists as Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys. In 1989, while still living in Japan, he began to create the large-scale public art events that not only used explosives but involved social mobilization, calling on crews of art volunteers. One powerful project was part of a series he called "Extraterrestrials," in which he extended the Great Wall of China—supposedly visible from outer space—by laying 10,000 meters (six miles) of fuses from the crumbling end of the wall into the Gobi Desert. Ignited at dusk, it unloosed a spectacular line of fire, snaking across the darkening landscape. He organized other extraordinary events—creating symphonies of explosions or generating graceful puffs of cloudlike smoke—at sites in Taiwan, Japan, South Africa and Europe. "Because he's lived outside China and worked all over the world, his work is as much about universal issues as Chinese issues," says Melissa Chiu, director of New York's Asia Society Museum.

With his "Extraterrestrials" series, Cai wanted to move beyond the idea of the East-West cultural divide—maybe it's more accurate to call him an intergalactic artist, not just a global one. The theme is taken up in the Guggenheim show, where the subtitle, "I Want to Believe," comes straight from "The X-Files." "I want to believe that there are a lot of possibilities in the universe that we may not be aware of," Cai said through a translator—and an aura of mystery infuses his art. But the ideas he engages are earthbound—issues of war, terrorism, the atom bomb. Cai has made pieces that deal with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; when he first came to the United States, he created a series he called "The Century With Mushroom Clouds," detonating small explosions with a handheld tube at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere.

There's no way to look at Cai's art without thinking of September 11. The most poignant photos in the Guggenheim's excellent catalog show the artist in 1996, with that small gunpowder device, releasing a puff of smoke toward the Manhattan skyline, with the Twin Towers gleaming in the background. (Cai was in Italy on 9/11, but his family was at home in New York and his daughter's school near Ground Zero had to be evacuated.) War and terrorism continue to fuel his art, though his pieces are lyrical rather than lurid. The first artwork you'll see in the Guggenheim show is "Inopportune: Stage One," a spectacular stylization of a car bombing, unfolding cinematically—or like the narrative of a Chinese scroll—with nine identical white Chevy Metros tumbling down the museum's spiral atrium, and vibrantly colored light rods projecting from each one. The impact is frankly gorgeous.

But disaster isn't always expressed with a bang. "Inopportune: Stage Two" is a work of painful beauty, depicting nine life-size, fabricated tigers, pierced with more arrows than Saint Sebastian, jumping and writhing in agony. In the powerful installation "Head On," originally created in Berlin in 2006, a pack of 99 soaring wolves race toward their annihilation into a transparent wall, like birds smashing a picture window. Wolves and tigers and arrows, oh my—these are mesmerizing as art objects alone, but they're metaphorically rich, too. Those wolves could be the embodiment of evil in German fairy tales. Or they could be us, stampeding toward oblivion. They're also pretty darn cute—"teddy bears," as Guggenheim director Tom Krens puts it—made in China and as softly furry as toys under a Christmas tree. The ideas keep crackling like exploding firecrackers—or they hang serenely in the air. The yin of volatility, after all, is the yang of peace. According to Chinese legend, the alchemists who discovered gunpowder were searching for medicine—gunpowder actually means "fire medicine" in Chinese—not potential weaponry. When Cai speaks of his art as "comforting" or "healing," that's what he means. The dualities of celebration or warfare, exhilaration or destruction, the sublime or the savage keep unrolling as you move up the Guggenheim's curving ramps through this dreamscape for the 21st century.