Kristine Nielsen – Abstract

Suspended Subject Positions: Cai Guoqiang and the Medium of Gunpowder

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This paper argues that the contemporary artist Cai Guoqiang (b. 1957), a Chinese expatriate and resident of New York City since 1995, suspends his own position of subjectivity through his use of the volatile medium of gunpowder for his explosion events. Raised in the Fujian province in the southern parts of China, both Daoism and the ideas of Mao Zedong left an early mark. Like a field of potentiality or creative void, Cai describes himself as a “vessel,” subject to the things and events that happen to him. During Mao’s rule, the idea of the individual as a subject was suppressed in order to emphasize the collective and objective gaze of critique. The individual remained formless. In his artistic projects, Cai not only withholds his own sense of agency, willfully submitting to the nature of his medium, he also withdraws and minimizes his own gaze in favor of an external and objective gaze upon himself. Using the examples of his Project for Extraterrestrials, 1990-2000, Cai Guoqiang’s Maximov Project, 2000-present, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard, 1999, and his more recent explosion event Freja: Explosion Event for Faurschou Foundation, 2012, this essay demonstrates the ways in which Cai Guoqiang defers his own agency. The larger implication is that, as a globetrotting artist often hired by major institutions to be present for artistic interventions, because of his biography, he in fact suspends his own presence and subjectivity in his gunpowder explosions and becomes the “vessel” of other things instead.

Cai Guoqiang, gunpowder, fireworks, explosion event, subject positions, identity, Mao, Cultural Revolution, Daoism, China