Museum of Fine Arts Houston Commissions Artist Cai Guo-Qiang to Create Gunpowder Drawing

Cai will create Odyssey in Houston in October, with the public invited to observe; work will be permanently installed in the new Arts of China Gallery, opening October 17

Commission is the first in a series from contemporary artists for the MFAH´s Arts of Asia galleries

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang has long been known internationally for his prolific and multi-disciplinary body of work that fuses the mythic and the everyday. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has commissioned Cai to create his first permanent, site-specific installation in a U.S. museum, in an event that will be open to the public: a monumental ethereal landscape that will line the four walls of the MFAH´s Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery, which opens October 17. The drawing, Odyssey, is the latest in the artist´s two-decades-long signature series of gunpowder drawings.

Cai Guo-Qiang making gunpowder drawing Unmanned Nature, Hiroshima, October 2008. Photo by Seiji Toyonaga, courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art

“Cai Guo-Qiang is a master of the poetic on a grand scale,” commented Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. “His project for the Arts of China gallery will establish a singular vision for presenting the museum´s collection of art from China, furthering the dialogue between artworks from different time periods within the galleries, and presenting a fresh perspective on Chinese art across millennia.”

“Cai Guo-Qiang´s work takes us from the world of the mythic, the source of creative life, to the modern life of China and the world around us,” said Christine Starkman, MFAH curator for Asian art. “His project for the Arts of China Gallery brings these spheres together, and allows us to see that they are, remarkably, inescapably connected.”

Cai will create the piece in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Houston over several days in early October. Engaging dozens of volunteers from the Houston area, the creative process will be accessible to the public on Tuesday, October 5 and Wednesday, October 6. (Capacity will be limited. Online registration for free tickets begins Monday, September 20, at The work will span 42 panels totaling 10 by 162 feet. The artist and his crew will lay the panels on the floor, and then apply an assorted mix of gunpowder to the panels, before igniting the drawing with a fuse. The subsequent explosion, manipulated through various forms of control and mixed with a streak of chance, will emit the energy and fumes that produce the final work. The panels will then be installed back at the museum prior to the Sunday, October 17, opening day.

“The commission for the MFAH is a challenge and an exploration of how to show Oriental cultural relics. By creating a spiritual dimension that simultaneously displays ancient and modern art, the space becomes a portal where antiquity encounters the modern,” the artist stated. “In recent years, through my gunpowder drawings, I have been exploring the free-spirited style in traditional Chinese painting. Odyssey not only symbolizes the voyage that Chinese culture has taken from antiquity to modern times, it is also about the ancient Chinese literati´s journeys of the mind between heaven and earth. It removes us from the materialism, the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, allowing us to seek self-exile, wander aimlessly and embark on a spiritual odyssey of our own.”

The commission is part of the MFAH´s developing “Portals Project.” This planned series of commissions from four contemporary artists is intended to provide a contemporary perspective onto the collections of Korean, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art that have been developed for this new suite of galleries over the past three years. Whether an actual portal, or a metaphoric one, the intent is to provide a fresh context for Asian art across millennia. Artist Do-Ho Suh has also been commissioned for the series, and will install his piece for the Arts of Korea gallery in January 2011.

About the Artist and the MFAH Commission
Cai was born in the city of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, and studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. His work has since crossed multiple mediums within art, including drawing, video and performance art. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, he further explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale, and with gunpowder as his signature medium. The Houston commission illustrates the painterly quality and the eternally poetic world in early Chinese landscape ink-and-brush painting, with mist-shrouded mountains as the setting for details of rocks, vegetation and insects. The piece will be installed floor-to-ceiling.

Cai was awarded the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007, and the 20th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2009. He received worldwide attention for his work as the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In the same year, he was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. His work can be found in museum collections worldwide, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l´art contemporain, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, Queensland Art Gallery, Seattle Art Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Tate Modern, London. He lives and works in New York.

Arts of Asia Galleries at the MFAH
Five new Arts of Asia gallery spaces will surround Cullinan Hall on the first floor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street, totaling about 12,000 square feet. The Arts of Korea gallery opened first, in 2007, followed by Indonesian Gold in 2008 and the Nidhika and Pershant Mehta Arts of India gallery in 2009. The construction will conclude with galleries for China in fall 2010 and Japan in fall 2011.

MFAH Collections and Campus
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers more than 63,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present. Featured are the finest artistic examples of the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from post-1945 are particularly strong holdings. The MFAH collections are presented in six locations that make up the institutional complex. Together, these facilities provide a total of 300,000 square feet of space dedicated to the display of art. The MFAH comprises two major museum buildings, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe, and the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo; the Glassell School of Art; two house museums, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, featuring American art and decorative arts, and Rienzi, featuring European art and decorative arts; and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and home to modern and contemporary sculpture.

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