Since time immemorial humans have been intrigued with space and life beyond Earth. From fairy tales to cinema, the extra-terrestrial has been of particular interest. And since the cave paintings, these themes have been of interest for the arts. Touring from the Palace Museum (housed in the Forbidden City, China), artist Cai Guo-Qiang presented an exhibition at Museum of Art Pudong (MAP), Shanghai.
For Odyssey and Homecoming, Guo-Qiang created a site-specific, kinetic light installation, titled Encounter with the Unknown. The work presents a ‘cosmic tree’ that connects the ancient with the modern and the familiar with the foreign. A spectacle inspired by the nature-based cosmology of the Mayan civilisation, the installation weaves together images from stories and myths of humans who ‘defied gravity’ and ‘embraced the cosmos’, forming a tapestry of cosmologies from different civilisations. Like a cosmic workshop out of a child’s dream, the installation transcends linear historical narratives and enables different cosmic perspectives to converge and collide within this space. Guo-Qiang layers his work with humour and yet generate a certain energy.
I speak to Cai Gua-Qiang and Florie Zheng, the Head of Partnerships, China of VIVE Arts at HTC, who partnered for the virtual reality (VR) work, titled Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City at the exhibition.
Rahul Kumar (RK): Can you please share with us more on your exhibition Odyssey and the Homecoming. What is the thematic that ties the works together?
Cai Gua-Qiang (CQ): Odyssey and Homecoming originated from my recent Individual’s Journey Through Western Art History. In a series of exhibitions at renowned museums around the world, I have engaged in dialogues with various periods of Western art history as represented by these institutions’ iconic collections. I retraced ancient Greek and Roman civilisations at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and Pompeii ruins, dialogued with the Italian Renaissance at the Uffizi Galleries, the Spanish Golden Age and Baroque Art at the Prado Museum, Russian Socialist Realism and Avant-Garde Art at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Modernism at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, as well as the Middle Ages and Cézanne.
My art has been taking me on an odyssey to dialogue with various cultures. As the exhibition travels China, I hope that audience see how an individual from China who travels among different cultures is respected by people in different countries. Of course, I respect their cultures too. I embrace the remarkable civilisations throughout mankind’s history as our united heritage, and I believe it is an attitude worth pondering nowadays.
The newly commissioned work for this exhibition, Encounter with the Unknown, shows such an attitude too. If we are to search for our fellows in the cosmos and have a fruitful conversation with the unknown world, I think we need to have a broader perspective and think long-term. In this way, one may find the more unpretentious and tranquil things in life.
RK: Encounter With the Unknown is a site-specific kinetic installation. How does it attempt to connect the ‘ancient with the modern and familiar with the foreign’? And how does it transcend the linear historical narratives?
CQ: The works aims to capture the human longing for the cosmos seen in various cultures that has prevailed since ancient times. It is like a boy’s cosmic ship, incorporating how his perception of time and space evolved. When he was a child, he questioned why humans cannot defy gravity; if the wind is strong enough, can we be blown away into the space in the sailboat? Or can a kite or a huge bird take us to the space? From Einstein to Hawking, ‘Black Hole’ and ‘gravitational field’ and ‘Gagarin’, to ‘the call of extraterrestrials’, all these reflect humanity’s undying emotions and curiosity towards the cosmos. This desire to communicate with the Cosmos, which I regard as the eternal homeland of all lives, will always remain vital in my art.
RK: Please tell us about your interest in the Mayan civilisation, its stories and myths? How does this work form the basis of your inquiry into the human’s longing for the cosmos?
CQ: I have long been moved by the cosmology of ancient Latin American civilisations, which had all but been erased in the 16th century. On April 22, 2019—the day that marked 500 years since the Spaniards set foot in Mexico—I had planned to organise a large-scale ceremony on the Zócalo to discuss the ways in which Mexico might address this historical moment.
I visited Mexico multiple times over the course of two years in preparation for this project. Throughout my research, I visited local master pyrotechnicians as well as academics, politicians, diplomats, indigenous leaders, and Catholic clergy, ultimately finding that attitudes toward the subject were multifaceted and complex. For an artist, this was a clash between cosmologies, but for Mexicans, this was a clash between the colonisers and the colonised—a bloody and visceral history. Given the different identities and hybrid ancestries that exist in Mexico, and the political sensitivity surrounding this period of history, it would be extraordinarily difficult for anybody to realise such a project, much less an “outsider.” For this and other reasons, the concept was then filed under my “unrealised” projects.
Later, with the help of five Mexican pyrotechnician (castillo) families and my friend Jorge Marquez, the project was revitalised. The new date was November 8, the day the Spaniards arrived at the capital of the Aztec Empire, and the new location the Great Pyramid of Cholula, known as “the largest pyramid in the world,” on top of which the Spaniards had built an immense cathedral. The former pyramid is now a base without an apex, covered in vegetation.
At 6 p.m. on the evening of November 8, in the Soria Park at the foot of the Great Pyramid, five pyrotechnician families ignited five stories designed according to my concepts: Cosmic Tree, Encounter Between Civilizations, Modern Cosmic Tree, Defying Gravity, and Encounter with the Unknown. As the finale, I ignited a miniature rocket at the foot of the 500 steps; the flames ejected from the rocket then set off the other 9,999 in a manner of seconds. As 10,000 rockets shot forth, a resounding screech ripped through the night sky, like a shriek of ineffable sorrow. This 50-meter-high explosive structure was titled the Steps of a Lost Pyramid; the rockets seemed to form an apparition of the buried Great Pyramid of Cholula.
As a special commission project for the exhibition Odyssey and Homecoming, I created the site-specific kinetic light installation Encounter with the Unknown in the Museum of Art Pudong’s X Hall. I modified the hand-crafted Mexican Castillo used in 2019, now part of my collection, to create a kinetic structure equipped with LED lights, transforming it into a fantasy that the boy has towards the cosmos. Ultimately, the boy is humanity ourselves.
RK: Please tell us about your experience in recreating the virtual reality work Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City with Cai Guo-Qiang.
Florie Zheng (FZ): Back in 2019, Cai Guo-Qiang wanted to reimagine a fireworks festival that took place 600 years ago at the Forbidden City in Beijing. As fireworks are a ‘forbidden’ activity in the Forbidden City since the modern era, the artist turned to VR as a creative medium to realise his artistic goal.
Cai invited craftsmen from his hometown in Fujian province to sculpt an alabaster model using locally sourced clay. HTC VIVE Arts supported the 3D scanning of the alabaster model and filming of an actual large-scale daytime firework display that the artist choreographed and ignited in Liuyang, Hunan province. Vivid pigments from the colourful trails of smoke descended on the model, adding a dreamlike quality to the model of the Forbidden City. Once the fireworks’ 360 degree filming and 3D scanning of the model were completed, the CG team stitched the two parts together, which was quite painstaking as it took several algorithms to select and incorporate the perfect sparking strands of coloured smoke that was filmed from the site.
HTC VIVE Arts is a global programme and we are focused on harnessing cutting-edge technology to transform the way culture is experienced. We are very excited that through working with Cai on Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, we were able to achieve VIVE Arts’ mission of delivering one-of-a-kind projects that foster digital innovation and create immersive artworks through technology.
RK: What were the major challenges in concluding this project?
FZ: Cai Guo-Qiang’s practice transcends all sorts of boundaries. For his first foray into VR, we worked very closely with our technical team and Cai to find a way to incorporate the subversive qualities in Cai’s works with the control and precision of our technology applications.
We got together with our global technical team to discuss ways of realising the concept of the work, which elements need to be presented, how to optimise the immersive experience and how to physically present this work in an exhibition space, all whilst staying true to the artist’s original concept in the forms of science and technology. The outcome was extremely rewarding, we were truly in awe of the artist’s creativity, flexibility and the various teams involved in this ambitious project.