CAI GUO-QIANG’s explosion event, “Life is a Milonga: Tango Fireworks for Argentina,” realized at Vuelta de Rocha, outside Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires, on January 24, 2015. Photo by Angelika Li for ArtAsiaPacific.

Feb 06 2015

Cai Guo-Qiang: “Life Is A Milonga: Tango Fireworks For Argentina”

by Angelika Li

For those who have seen Wong Kar Wai’s film Happy Together (1997), it is difficult to forget the charms of Buenos Aires, the heart of Argentina. Passionate scenes in which actors Tony Leung and the late legendary Leslie Cheung, who play lovers in a romantic yet turbulent relationship, dance the Argentine tango, as well as footage featuring the mesmerizing Igazu waterfalls, vividly shapes our fantasy and image of Argentina—which, incidentally, was where artist Cai Guo-Qiang recently showed his signature explosion event for the first time in Latin America. The scale and type of the event was unprecedented in Argentina and successfully attracted an audience of over 250,000 to La Boca, Buenos Aires, in late January. It was an exhilarating experience, where all of your senses were awakened during an 80-minute explosion event, while over 43,000 fireworks were shot up and various musical performances and interactive programs simultaneously took place.

“Life is a milonga” is an old Argentine saying, where milonga refers to a tango dance party in which participants of all ages and walks of life remove themselves from everyday reality, as they wait to ask or be asked to dance with another person. The idea and concept of Cai’s event, “Life in a Milonga : Tango Fireworks for Argentina,” as the name suggests, was inspired by the aforementioned Argentine dance. In Cai’s performance, the culture and history of Argentina tangoed with the fireworks, a medium that traces its origin to the traditional Far East. Argentina is historically home to many immigrants from Europe, who came through the port of Vuelta de Rocha in La Boca, Buenos Aires, during the early 20th century. The immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world brought with them different musical and dance influences that led to the emergence of Tango. In the early days, tango was danced by two male participants. The history of the La Boca neighborhood, therefore, has been quintessential to the development of the Argentinean identity and culture. It was at this very location where Cai’s chain of events were visualized, which transformed the harbor of Vuelta de Rocha into the perfect stage for “Life is a Milonga.” The harbor looked like a tango dance floor to Cai, who also found that tango embodies sad, somber feelings that contradict the excitement and positive energies released from fireworks.

Tango dancers performing during CAI GUO-QIANG’s event “Life is a Milonga: Tango Fireworks for Argentina,” realized at Vuelta de Rocha, outside Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires, on January 24, 2015. Photo by Cai Canhuang.

“In my work, I work in different cultures of the world,” explains Cai. Local culture, history and sensibility is what the artist focuses on for each of his site-specific projects. Cai always conducts thorough research of his subject matter and collaborates with the local community in the process. 

In the proximity of the Vuelta de Rocha harbor one can also find “Impromptu” at Fundación Proa, Cai’s first solo exhibition in Argentina, which opened in December 2014. Cai and his studio started their explorations and research in Argentina in February 2014. The artist carried out an in-depth study on the history and culture of the Argentine tango, through observations of numerous milongas and learning information from the locals. Cai brought together local choreographers, dancers, historians, scholars, musicians, university students and teachers from Universidad Nacional de las Artes (UNA) and the Instituto Municipal de Ceramica de Avellaneda (IMCA), and volunteers integrated materials sourced from each of these quintessential components into the composition of the final work.

In “Impromptu,” viewers encounter the creativity and sensibility of Cai, who offers a strong sense of locality in the exhibition. Upon entering the first room, visitors are met with quite a confusing spatial configuration in the installation Life is a Milonga (2014). Figures of tango dancers—created by local students from the IMCA—balance on transparent boards that are suspended from the ceiling. Bar stools from a local flea market hang upside down on the ceiling, while the “La Cumparsita”—the most recognizable tango and traditionally the last song played in a milonga—is heard from music boxes accompanying the installation.

The title of Cai’s explosion event, “Life is a Milonga,” complements the spontaneity, passion and anxiety implied in the title of Cai’s solo exhibition, “Impromptu.”According to Cai, the Argentina project was not a smooth process and was the most challenging (and possibly the most frustrating) explosion event he has worked on. Cai remarks: “The [making of gunpowder drawings on paper and gunpowder paintings on canvas] in Argentina is difficult to handle. If I use too little it does not catch on fire; if I use too much it ignites with ruthless ferocity. At times the bricks and cardboard that covered the drawing sizzled when they were cast aside after the explosion. [. . .] Yet I felt both a youthful impetuousness and an irrepressible excitement [. . .] Why am I afraid of burning holes through the drawing? Don’t the burnt parts add to the presence of the medium itself?”

The title of the three large-scale landscapes The Town of Eternal SlumberSentinels of the Enchanted Valley and Agua Grande (all 2014) describe the scenes portrayed in each work. Inspired by the artist’s visits to Iguazu, Salta and Misiones of Argentina, they are captured in a documentary video, which is shown in the exhibition and gives viewers a glimpse of what it is like for the explosions to fail and catch fire. Some scenes show the artist putting out big fires alongside local volunteers and his studio staff. The title chosen for a series of six gunpowder paintings on canvas, “Impromptu No. 1–6,” reflect the nature and spontaneity of the Argentine tango. Cai’s sensibility has led me to contemplate that tango is not only a dance, but almost a type of mediation that can lead us to self-awareness, to form connections with one another and, last but not least, to the balance we seek in our lives.

CAI GUO-QIANG’s explosion event, “Life is a Milonga: Tango Fireworks for Argentina,” realized at Vuelta de Rocha, outside Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires, on January 24, 2015. Video by Angelika Li for ArtAsiaPacific.