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  • Apr 30, 2012

Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Sky Ladder”

CAI GUO-QIANG, Explosion Event for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, realized on site at the Geffen Contemporary, 2012. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

More than 4,500 visitors eagerly awaited the arrival of an outer-space alien to kick-off the opening of “Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on April 7—the artist’s first exhibition in Los Angeles. The theme of the evening revolved around aliens, related to Cai’s ongoing “Project for Extraterrestrials” (1994– ), a series of 32 explosion events, playfully named to imply blasts so large they might be seen from outer space, yet also a metaphor for something uninhibited by Earthly meanings and rules. Explosions from 40,000 rockets and an additional 100 floating fireworks left smoke clouds in shapes intended to suggest crop circles and flying saucers.

Held at MOCA’s extensive warehouse space in bustling downtown Los Angeles, the giant blasts shocked bewildered bystanders, who were largely unaware of the event’s particulars due to the inaudibility of the speakers amplifying the detailed descriptions of what was about to unfold. Yet, perhaps no words could have been proper preparation for the colossal pyrotechnic display. Many at the event momentarily thought their lives were at risk, which seemed foolish later considering the battalion of fire squads and the fact that Cai has worked with explosives for three decades.

CAI GUO-QIANG, Childhood Spaceship, 2012, gunpowder on paper, 400 × 3300 cm. Commissioned by Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy MOCA.
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As the blasts burned out, they charred a mural along the warehouse wall, of a martian and UFOs. After the explosion event, guests were invited into the sprawling exhibition space to view three large-scale gunpowder drawings specifically commissioned for the exhibition and executed with the help of local volunteers. In addition to the drawings, a sculptural installation titled Crop Circles (2012) spanned the entire ceiling overhead, further evoking the ambience of something alien, though not ominously. The overall effect of the works was monumental yet charmingly playful.

A back room also offered four screens of video footage documenting some of Cai’s past work, which has been exhibited on every continent. Perhaps what endears Cai to each new location is the fact that he personalizes the presentation by creating a site-specific work for almost every exhibition. For example, the gunpowder drawing Childhood Spaceship (2012) includes details of Griffith Park Observatory, an iconic Los Angeles site for stargazing.

Yet the exhibition, for all of its “hits,” can also be measured by its misses. The title “Sky Ladder” harks back to a project that Cai has been attempting since 1994, in which a hot-air balloon transports a fiery ladder into the sky. This latest exhibition prompted Cai to try once again, yet due to prohibitive fire regulations in the dry desert brush terrain of Los Angeles County, his proposal was, for a fourth time, refused. In naming the entire exhibition after a repeatedly rejected, unrealized idea, Cai’s subtle but poignant message is that his determination is as steadfast as those childhood notions and fantasies that persist in society today, expressed in the ambitions of experimental scientific enquiry, for example, as much as in the speculations of science fiction enthusiasts.