arts

Gunpowder artist stages explosive new work in Pompeii

Published 22nd February 2019
Gunpowder artist stages explosive new work in Pompeii
Written by Emily Dixon, CNN
Almost 2,000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius decimated Pompeii, the Roman city lit up again -- this time, in the name of art.
Cai Guo-Qiang, the New York-based artist famed for his work with gunpowder, staged an explosion Thursday in the ancient remnants of Pompeii's amphitheater, for a new exhibition titled "In the Volcano."
Cai, born in Quanzhou, China, is renowned for 'painting' with explosives; he creates elaborate firework displays, as well as tangible artworks produced by igniting gunpowder over paper and canvas.
"In the Volcano" is characteristically bipartite: it comprises the eruption event itself, titled "Explosion Studio," as well as an exhibition of the art created in its aftermath.
"Explosion Studio" ignites in the Pompeii amphitheater.
"Explosion Studio" ignites in the Pompeii amphitheater. Credit: Photo by Yvonne Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio
"When I was young, the constraints of Chinese society and my personal timid and cautious nature both drove me to seek a means to go against control," Cai told CNN.
"Gunpowder has an inherent uncertainty and uncontrollability, and is an important means for me to relieve myself of constraint."
For his latest work, the artist placed a 108-feet canvas in the ruins of the amphitheater, then surrounding it with Pompeii-inspired artworks: frescoes, towering plaster statues, glassware, silk, ceramics and marble.
He incorporated explosives and multicolor gunpowder into the installation, then lit a fuse to engulf the pieces of art in smoke and ash.
After the explosion, Cai examines the gunpowder-stained "Exploding Hercules."
After the explosion, Cai examines the gunpowder-stained "Exploding Hercules." Credit: Photo by Yvonne Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio
"The amphitheater comprises the history of violence and animalism, which have a fundamental connection to gunpowder," Cai said of his choice of location.
Artworks recovered from the amphitheater will go on display on Friday night at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, alongside other gunpowder paintings -- a snarling lion on canvas, and red and blue gunpowder residue stained on marble -- created in New York.
Cai's "Fierce Lion," painted on canvas with gunpowder.
Cai's "Fierce Lion," painted on canvas with gunpowder. Credit: Yvonne Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio
The first stage of the Pompeii exhibition didn't go exactly to plan. Firstly, Cai and his team were let into the amphitheater late, limiting the time they had to set up.
"The enormous platform that I had planned on building over the gravel-covered floor of the amphitheater was also incomplete," Cai said.
Still, the artist was satisfied with the outcome. "I did not anticipate some of these results, but overall the results surpassed my imagination -- it is so spontaneous, fierce, wild," he told CNN.
"I have always found that if, while creating an artwork, the artist constantly feels that some accident would occur if he is not careful, then it is a very significant moment and a significant work."
"Exploding Hercules" and "Plum Venus" in the amphitheater after the eruption.
"Exploding Hercules" and "Plum Venus" in the amphitheater after the eruption. Credit: Amedeo Benestante
"For this project, I have tried to let my hormones take the lead, creating something with a touch of ferocity," Cai said in a statement.
He told CNN, "I felt that I shouldn't think too much in the creation of this project, and should aim to make it take place in a more directly sensual and straightforward manner."