Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist for whom the sky is the actual limit, gets grounded for a new exhibit in Tokyo.
“Ramble in the Cosmos —From ‘Primeval Fireball’ Onward” at the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT) features formative projects in Cai’s career trajectory. Curator Eriko Osaka built the show around a 1991 exhibit Cai showed in Japan during the nearly nine years he lived in the country before he relocated to New York. At “Primeval Fireball,” seven folding screen panels showed yet-to-be-realized projects, which fanned out as if from a central Big Bang. Some of the panels are gathered again here, along with new colored gunpowder pieces, in the same formation.
Though the panels are the thematic centerpiece, it’s the large LED light installation based on Cai’s 2019 work “Encounter with the Unknown” that’s the most eye-catching. The objects — UFOs, Einstein’s face, rockets and alien figures — oscillate and light up on a timed sequence, shimmering and turning red, mimicking the sensation of a fireworks show.
Along the walls are videos and drawings, including an expansive 33-meter-long piece on which Cai based the fireworks for the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The gunpowder images are, to use a technical art criticism term, extremely cool. The striking “Return to Darkness,” from 2021, after Cai started incorporating color into his works, is the image that resulted from lighting a fuse connected to a Tibetan mandala. The results of these newer colored works look ripped from the galaxy, nebular twists of gaseous structures.
Both Cai’s gunpowder drawings — diagrams and concept drawings related to his large-scale projects — and his gunpowder paintings — stand-alone pieces that are often abstract remains after a work was set on fire — show in fine, close-up detail his tightly controlled mastery over the mercurial, difficult-to-contain medium.
Cai’s medium of fireworks and explosives mean that, by nature, his art is hard to capture in a gallery space. The thing Cai is most famous for — his dazzling, sky-high displays of fireworks, which he calls “explosion events” — are not going to be accessible at NACT. (A few days before the opening, Cai did hold such an event in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, with support by Saint Laurent. Videos that appeared on social media of “When the Sky Blooms With Sakura” were slickly produced and indeed thrilling.)
His events happen in a particular place and moment in time, so what can be exhibited is an afterimage — a symbolic imprint that preserves a past action. One such event, “Sky Ladder,” was the focal point of a Netflix documentary of the same name. The drama of the film rests on the highly complex logistics of his large events and the reality that anything can go wrong, even down to the final hour.
To see Cai’s works in a museum is, as expected, quite different. The rooms are clean, hushed and climate controlled. They contain none of the rambunctious danger on display in the videos, which show a black-haired Cai in his renegade days, lighting fires in fields and scampering away.
The exhibit is more fitting of the 65-year-old man and his button-down, blazer and closely shaved head of gray. It de-emphasizes the element of spectacle and instead offers something muted, sobering and rich, which can be paused and pored over. Instead of a stunt, it’s a tapestry.
“Ramble in the Cosmos ― From Primeval Fireball Onward” opened June 29 at the National Art Center, Tokyo and runs until Aug. 21.