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Exploding Cai

Cai Guo Qiang (Quanzhou, 1957)

Gunpowder on canvas
90 x 120 cm
1890 n. 10747

Cai Guo-Qiang is one of China's most celebrated contemporary artists, known for his spectacular firework performances around the world, as well as his unconventional use of gunpowder as a pictorial medium for his compositions. On the one hand, this choice emphasises the artist's origins (as is well known, pyrotechnic shows originated in China), but at the same time, it marks a break with oriental culture, which is very set and controlled, as fire and the energy it releases are natural elements whose effects are difficult to predict.

The self-portrait is a pictorial genre that returns repeatedly in Cai Guo Qiang's work, because it is closely in tune with his conception of art as a continuous challenge and adventure, and the artist as a kind of shaman who frees and attempts to dominate invisible energies. In this Self-Portrait, Cai portrays himself in a very classical manner, with his face in a frontal pose and the tools of his trade (not the brush and palette, but the trigger and explosion of a small firework) in the top left-hand corner. Once ignited, the gunpowder deposits itself on the canvas support of the painting following the trace of a silhouette cut out on glassine paper. The black gunpowder used here causes a more rapid and concentrated explosion, unlike the coloured version, making it possible to obtain a more defined mark with a more graphic effect.

The work was donated to the Uffizi Galleries by Chinese collector Silas Chou during the exhibition "Flora Commedia" in 2018-19, part of the project "Journey of an Individual through the History of Western Art", with which the artist, between 2017 and 2019, aimed to dialogue, in important European museum institutions, with the different aspects of art history represented in them.


Flora Commedia. Cai Guo-Qiang agli Uffizi, edited by L. Donati, E.e Schmidt, exhibition catalogue (Firenze, Gli Uffizi, Sala di Levante, 10 novembre 2018 – 17 febbraio 2019), Firenze 2018, p. 84; F. Sborgi in Self-Portrait Masterpieces from the Uffizi Galleries collection, edited by V. Gavioli, A. Griffo, exhibition catalogue (Shanghai, Bund One Art Museum; Pechino, National Museum of China; 2022-2023), Pechino 2023, n. 49 pp. 344-349.

Text by
Francesca Sborgi
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