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Art: Fireworks art, in fleeting and enduring spectacle

Cai Guo-Qiang is known internationally as a "fireworks artist," but even though gunpowder is his signature medium, his repertoire includes more than blinding flashes and concussive bangs.

"Time Scroll" at Fabric Workshop and Museum, produced in an explosion event that yielded a sten- ciled 120-foot-long gunpowder drawing on silk, representing combined chance and calculation.
"Time Scroll" at Fabric Workshop and Museum, produced in an explosion event that yielded a sten- ciled 120-foot-long gunpowder drawing on silk, representing combined chance and calculation.Read moreWILL BROWN / Fabric Workshop and Museum

Cai Guo-Qiang is known internationally as a "fireworks artist," but even though gunpowder is his signature medium, his repertoire includes more than blinding flashes and concussive bangs.

Cai also uses gunpowder to make images on fabric and paper that are more durable than the momentary dazzle of "explosion projects" such as the huge flaming flower that he touched off at sunset on the east terrace of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Dec. 11.

Like the displays Cai created for the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but on a far smaller scale, the flower was a transient phenomenon - it lasted only one minute.

It lives on, however, in a high-definition video that's part of an exhibition collaboration between the Art Museum and the Fabric Workshop and Museum called "Fallen Blossoms."

The collaboration is a complex and multilayered exploration of remembrance and renewal dedicated to Anne d'Harnoncourt, the Art Museum's director from 1982 until her death on June 1, 2008. Specifically, it's organized around memories of her long-time friend expressed by Marion Boulton "Kippy" Stroud, founder and artistic director of the Workshop.

Spectacle is intrinsic to Cai's method, and to his appeal, and the project included one other explosion event that produced a 120-foot-long gunpowder drawing on silk. This is Time Scroll, at the Workshop.

The artist created it by first arranging along the fabric stencils that symbolized events in the Stroud-d'Harnoncourt friendship. He then distributed gunpowder over the surface and, in the presence of an opening-night audience, ignited it.

Typical of Cai's gunpowder works, Time Scroll represents a combination of chance and calculation. And although it appears to be permanent, it's intentionally doomed to destruction. Cai submerged the scroll in a sinuous stainless-steel trough through which recirculating water flows. When the Workshop portion of the exhibition ends on March 1, the drawing is supposed to have been erased by the constant erosive action. Memories fade, life goes on.

Four large gunpowder drawings on paper at the Art Museum, collectively titled Light Passage, are more permanent. They also were created by "drawing" with gunpowder while the paper panels were horizontal, a technique analogous to that used by Jackson Pollock for his famous "drip" paintings.

The graphic quality of Cai's drawings, themed to the four seasons, is much more varied than that of Time Scroll. The range and density of tones are greater, from heavily scorched black through umberish brown to delicate washes of gray, which are especially prominent and effective in the drawing subtitled Spring.

Linear tracks that resemble barbed wire, crisply defined shapes created with stencils, and, in Autumn, the largest drawing, splotches of yellow and orange contribute liveliness and contrast.

The quality of light generated by the drawings also varies significantly, from the high-contrast white of Winter to the moodier, washier gray of Spring.

The suite is visually powerful, emotionally quiet in some parts and robustly effusive in others, especially in Autumn. While burning gunpowder might have produced some distinctive traces, like speckling, the issue of medium ultimately becomes irrelevant. The drawings' authority transcends the novelty of the process.

While they might seem radical, conceptually they are firmly grounded in traditional Chinese ink-brush technique.

The drawings would show to better advantage in a more congenial space, however. Their location, Gallery 172, as part of the central corridor of the modern-contemporary wing, is too narrow for works of this scale, especially the super-sized Autumn, which looms over viewers.

Space isn't a problem at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, where Time Scroll forms a shimmering pathway down the full length of the eighth floor, competing for your visual attention only with a small video monitor playing a recording of the trail of fire that created it.

This is a soothing, elegiac work; for some odd reason, it made me think of John Everett Millais' painting of a drowning Ophelia supine in a shallow stream. The images on the bed of the "stream" are diffuse and abstract, like smooth stones refracted by the water.

Whether the continual immersion produces the desired result of erasing the drawing remains to be seen; this is one aspect of "Fallen Blossoms" that evolves as time passes.

The temporal factor is even more evident on the floor below, where artisans engaged by Cai Guo-Qiang evoke remembrance in a more colorful and concrete way.

Five weavers from the ethnic Tujia clan in the Xiangxi region of China's Hunan province, resplendent in traditional dress, are working at bulky looms creating tapestries with vividly colored cotton yarns.

The weavers are inspired by Stroud's recollections of d'Harnoncourt, which were translated into a Chinese text, and which also play, in English, over speakers in the Time Scroll gallery.

Over the next 21/2 months, the weavers will compose an indeterminate number of tapestries that interpret Stroud's narrative within the context of their individual life experiences. Cai, who met folk weavers while traveling in western China years ago, suggested this aspect of the exhibition, so different conceptually from his own work.

Time Flies Like a Weaving Shuttle fascinates on a more tactile level, and effectively stands alone as a show within the larger whole. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the weavers, all women, through a translator.

When visitors descend to the Workshop's second floor, Cai's gunpowder adventure ends where it began, with a large-screen video projection of the flaming flower. The video is also shown continuously on a smaller monitor hanging in the Workshop's street-level front window.

Even if you were among the hundreds of chilled aesthetes who witnessed the real explosion on Dec. 11, don't pass up the video, because it's a different and more moving experience.

In playback, the event has been slowed down to reveal how the huge blossom outlined against the Art Museum's east portico opened up, from the center outward.

The real-time sequence itself was too rapid to apprehend this "blossoming," but in the video the lyricism of Cai's concept is more effectively revealed.

In the video, the sonic-boom cascade that signals the death of the blossom, and portends its eventual rebirth, seems in retrospect not only extraneous but also counterproductive. The piece should have ended quietly and gently, fading gradually as flowers, and memories, normally do.

Art: Gunpowder Art