Made during a performance taking place the Monday and Tuesday of June 7-8, 2010, the drawings “retrace the experience of a young student faced with the discovery of the French Riviera region.” The artist invited Yuting Zhang, a student at the Theatre School in Shanghai, where the artist himself had studied, to accompany him during his stay on the French Riviera. His impressions of this trip will guide the artist’s hand in his work. A dialogue thus begins between Cai and Zhang.
First the drawing, figurative and abstract, introduced a charcoal work made of shadows and sketches where natural and cosmic subjects find themselves alongside feminine figures. Using silhouette play evoking Chinese shadow puppetry theatre, Cai catches of the contours of the models’ body. Other figures (flowers, architecture and local landscapes...) are sketched on the spot on grey cardboard to be cut by volunteer to make patterns. Around twenty assistants, all busy or on the lookout, participate in this ritual, just like the audience that takes part in the creation of the work with their presence and energy. It is necessary to note that the visual is essential in the delivery orchestrated by Cai. Everything seems both calculated and unpredictable, all at once. The atmosphere that emerges, the choreographed staging, the implication of the model and the spectators refer us to the anthropometric performances of Yves Klein in a striking manner.
Set on the ground, the drawing is partially protected thanks to cardboard patterns and glossy paper in order to receive different types of black powder whose grain size and chemical properties will attack the paper differently. The artist thus reworks these figures with this explosive concoction of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Bit by bit the drawing is carefully covered with a succession of packaging material layers (Chinese calligraphy paper, kraft wrapping paper, cardboard). Bricks are then placed on top in a way to exert localized pressure and thus control the intensity of the firing. The lighting of matches then triggers a series of explosions lasting but a few seconds, yet generating tremendous intensity. Combustion lines the cardboard, white smoke emerges. The noise, burst, and smell of the setting on fire is impressive. It creates the idea that those watching are attending a grand spectacle. Then the work is discovered, revealing traces of instants frozen in a vital movement.
Restoring the force of the explosion, the work is made of little mysteries, palimpsests, writings, sketches, vegetal and human impressions. The contact with fire on the paper gives birth to spectral impressions. On a background left crude, the combustion forms a hot and fertile aura.
This tangible and volatile residue marvelously expresses presence before absence, a concept dear to Yves Klein in his Anthropometries. Durable and spontaneous image of vital energie, the black powder drawings describe, in the words of Yves Klein, “états-moments,” or states-moments, of the flesh, of fire, and of nature. One could also bring together Cai’s drawings where the vegetal plays a leading role with Yves Klein’s Cosmogonies that, with impressions of rain and wind recorded on paper, sublimate the creative force of nature. Klein, in his quest for the absolute, was a fire painter. Making fire impressions on paper or cardboard (Peinture de feu sans titre (F55), 1961), on flame action, Klein also superimposed that of water (Carte de mars par l’eau et le feu (F83), 1961), then went to impressions of naked bodies (Peinture de feu sans titre (F80), 1961), traces of gold or paint (Peinture feu couleur sans titre (EC6), ca. 1961)2.
What Cai and Klein have in common is the fact that they are both influenced traditional Asian painting. Their works result in a fragile balance between fullness and emptiness, order and disorder, the controllable and the accidental. Outside of a stay in Japan, they share a certain art of ceremony and ritual. Both literally play with fire, with its cultural and symbolic significance. Fire, as a marker of impressions, interests them both as well as its spectacular and spiritual nature. In the manner of true demiurges, the artists manipulate destructive breath, transform the material, give birth to its new state of being. Creator of the event, primordial element, fire becomes a controllable weapon.
Presented before a 130 m2 floor of olive oil, this spectacular and poetic installation presents itself as a cyclorama giving the spectator the impression of celestial immensity and of being encompassed in the artistic process. Thus a space for projection and contemplation. A suggestion the involved parties immerse themselves in. Fire and water, essential elements that mutually oppose and attract each other, create harmonious tension, symbols of Yin and Yang. Inviting contemplation and spiritual ascent, the work that gave its name to the exhibition guides us gradually to another exploration.”
Gilbert Perlein and Rébecca François, May 2010
1 – the first day is dedicated to making the drawings, the second, to lighting the drawings on fire.
2 – Cai’s research on materials, like those of Klein, are connected to color. And yet Cai doesn’t use pigments. The nuances are created by the manipulation and the combustion of different powders.