AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Aram Festekjian

Explosions for Rebirth: Surpassing the Memories of Pain

Cai Guo-Qiang is most famous for his pyrotechnical artistic methods and installations which explore the visual language of explosions and the aesthetics of pain. Cai Guo-Qiang is known for creating explosive performance art that has a deeper political meaning that usually revolves around China. As Cai Guo-Qiang become more world-renowned he began to expand his artwork internationally. A particular artwork that showcases Cai Guo-Qiang’s artistic expansion was showcased in 2005 at the entrance to the Zacheta National Gallery of Art. Cai Guo-Qiang’s intention for this particular work of art is to blend the past and present through location and content. The Zacheta National Gallery is a location with great significance as it was the location where Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of Poland in 1922, was assassinated (Munroe, 2008). This location was also quite important in the 1980s because it was the communal area where people protested against the communist regime in Poland. The use of this historical location allowed Cai Guo-Qiang to utilize the well-known red flag which is about 21ft x 31ft within the façade of the building. Cai Guo-Qiang uses his artistic niche of pyrotechnics to burn down the infamously known red flag which generally symbolizes socialism, communism, and Marxism. Initiating an explosive performance in a location with communist history demonstrates Cai Guo-Qiang’s vision of visually burning away the dark and painful past of communism and signifying the purification and rebirth of Poland. Cai Guo-Qiang has created many artworks that directly speak against China’s communist ideals and continues to demonstrate his stance on communism by creating works internationally. This piece demonstrates his artistic expansion. Cai Guo-Qiang extends his work by going beyond China and connecting his art to any person or nation that has suffered through times of communism.

For my exhibition for this course, I would like to utilize the outdoors of the Union College campus. I would like to incorporate some sort of firework display symbolizing an important message that identifies with the student population. I would like to somehow utilize the Nott Memorial as the centerpiece as fireworks ignite within a reasonable distance. Cai Guo-Qiang has many performance artworks that start with a particular visual of something important that ultimately ends up exploding. I would like to use some sort of visual represnetation that ulitamtely ends up exploding near the Nott.

Image of Art:


Munroe, Alexandra, and Thomas Krens.Cai Guo-Qiang I Want to Believe. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2008.

Rojas, Carlos. “Cai Guo-Qiang.” Diacritics 47.4 (2019): 130-5. ProQuest. Web. 8 May 2022.

Extension 1994

Cai Guo-Qiang is a versatile artist who has created his own artistic movement which utilizes gunpowder and explosives. Whether it is an installation, a performance, or a drawing, Cai Guo-Qiang blends many different aspects of humanity and investigates the true purpose of humans within this world. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Extension, 1994, is a beautiful work of art that utilizes his gunpowder technique. Within this work, he utilizes the entirety of the gallery’s walls which extends throughout 8 different canvases— the work extends fifty feet and is about seven feet high. This gunpowder drawing has a yellow and brown tint and moves quite majestically within the different panels. As a Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang creates this dynamic and abstract curvature to symbolize both the great wall of China and the famously known Chinese dragon. When thinking of the great wall of China and dragons, one thinks of length which is exhibited within the title of the work –extension. It is interesting to see Cai Guo-Qiang, create a simultaneous comparison between these two entities because both the Great Wall and dragons have a particular form that seems to be quite inconsistent –these two subjects appear to flow randomly. This particular work is somewhat of a nationalistic work of art because it connects Chinese cultural symbols, architecture, and resources all in one depiction. (Guggehim.org) Initially, when looking at this work of art it is hard to tell what medium is being used. Many may perceive this work of art as similar to Jackson Pollock who utilized splatter paint. In a way, Cai Guo-Qiang is modern-day Jackson Pollock because of his utilization of a new technique while focusing on the boundaries of abstraction. Cai Guo-Qiang, similar to Pollock, only has a certain amount of control over his medium; much of the final display comes down to the strategic placement of his own hand.

Extension, 1994, Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as an eight-panel screen, 256 x 1,560 cm


“Gunpowder Drawings.” The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, https://www.guggenheim.org/teaching-materials/cai-guo-qiang-i-want-to-believe/gunpowder-drawings.

Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City in the Fujian Province of China. He is a well-known Chinese pyrotechnical contemporary artist who started his career as a stage designer. This specific concentration helped him become comfortable with larger performance artworks pertaining to his style which utilizes gunpowder and explosives. Since the mid-1980s, Cai Guo-Qiang had been creating art events and projects that emphasize the cosmic laws of opposition between creation and destruction yin and yang. Cai Guo-Qiang continued to evolve the scale and form of these gunpowder works. Initially, he started by using explosive gunpowder on canvas, which eventually led him to develop his signature outdoor explosion events. A notable artwork made by Cai Guo-Qiang is the Sky Ladder which is a 1,650-foot-tall ladder, held aloft by a giant balloon and rigged with explosives. As the massive sculpture ignites, it creates a fiery vision that miraculously ascends to the heavens. He currently lives and works in New York City and New Jersey, however earlier in his career he mainly worked in Japan which helped him turn his conceptual ideas into reality.

Guo-Qiang, Cai, and Octavio Zaya. “Portfolio.” Grand Street, no. 67 (1999): 120–25.






Aram Festekjian

Hello, my name is Aram and I am a senior at Union College majoring in Art History and Visual Arts. I am originally from Winchester, Massachusetts. After graduation, I will be studying for a master’s degree in Industrial and Product Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. I am taking this class because I am interested in understanding the way propaganda was integrated into people’s daily lives within Communist China. I am also interested in understanding the ways Propaganda as a strategy developed before the integration of technology.

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