Japanese artist Taro Okamoto once said, “Art is an explosion.” This was despite the fact that his own works were carefully planned and developed, as the exhibition “Taro Okamoto’s Paintings: From Impulse to Realization” at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art made clear back in 2006. Okamoto’s famous dictum, however, literally applies to the New-York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who is famous for using gunpowder explosions to distribute colors and other effects across his expansive canvases.
Once based in Japan, Cai has an impressive new solo show at the Yokohama Museum of Art, titled “Cai Guo-Qiang: There and Back Again,” which includes “Nighttime Sakura” (2015), the largest gunpowder work he has ever done, measuring an almighty 8 × 24 meters, which dominates the museum’s entrance hall.
The size of this work and the sense of occasion and energy created by Cai’s use of gunpowder to achieve “abstract expressionist” patterns and smoky textures is impressive. But once you mentally subtract those elements, you are left with a painting of a rather comical-looking owl, peering down at you from among some cherry blossom branches, and the suspicion that Cai may be more expert at gimmickry than artistry.
This impression is strengthened by the next section of the exhibition, “Seasons of Life” (2015), a series of enormous, messy, erotic works inspired by the 18th-century shunga (erotic print) artist Tsukioka Settei’s “Handscroll of the Four Seasons.” This depicts copulating couples at different stages of life, from the “timid and young virgin who is without a trace of pubic hair,” as Cai phrases it in the press release, to an uninhibited mature woman. The change in attitude is signaled by the color scheme used to highlight the genitals. Yet again, the oversized canvases and the attention-grabbing subject matter seem to be stretching for effect rather than aesthetic excellence.
While a lot of energy — that of Cai, Settei, and indeed the gunpowder — has gone into these works, they fail to carry much of an erotic charge, which may be just as well, because during my visit a tour group of girls from a junior high-school were led through the gallery by their presumably unsuspecting teachers.
As a Chinese contemporary artist, who rose to prominence while residing in Japan (1986-1995) and who now lives and works in New York, Cai likes to explore a sense of modern art that is not rooted in Western culture and society. Gunpowder, famously, is a Chinese invention that the Chinese used more for festive occasions in the form of fireworks rather than for warfare. Cai’s use of it echoes this Chinese tradition. He has also created art that has incorporated other elements of Chinese culture, such as feng shui, Chinese traditional medicine, yin and yang, qi, and Chinese philosophy.
One of the key elements of East Asian art is the artists’ willingness to accept the working of random elements and materials. This too explains his use of gunpowder. As he states in the exhibition catalog, “The fascinating thing about the gunpowder explosion is that I never have total control.”
While “Nighttime Sakura” and “Seasons of Life” impress more by their size and ambition than their aesthetic strengths, the next work, which also references the Asian love of seasons as an artistic reference point, is more successful. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter” (2014) features four panels, each consisting of 60 porcelain tiles that have been decorated with realistic relief sculptures of motifs found in Chinese nature paintings — various flowers, insects, and fish. All have been treated to a firework barrage, creating shadows and smudges that evoke the aging and weathering effects of the elements.
This display is enhanced by another work, “Morning Glory” (2015), an assemblage of terracotta leaves, made in collaboration with a group of students from the Yokohama College of Art and Design, which hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the same room.
After this, the show culminates in one of Cai’s most impressive works, “Head On” (2006), an installation using 99 life-sized replicas of wolves. These feral beasts are arranged in an arc as if flying through the air, only to hit an invisible wall.
Originally shown in Berlin, this was meant as a comment on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, in which divisions between East and West still remained. The work is, however, also vaguely suggestive of the invisible walls that exist between Asian contemporary art and a Western sensibility. Cai states that the wolves signify “a sense of community, heroic spirit, and bravery.”
While Asian artists tend to view wolves positively — Tomoko Konoike’s work springs to mind as an obvious example — in the West they remain a creature associated with sinister dread. But, as with the visit by the junior high school girls, such unwitting elements add an interesting twist to proceedings.
“Cai Guo-Qiang: There and Back Again” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs until Oct. 18; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Thu. yokohama.art.museum/special/2015/caiguoqiang/english.html