China, born 1957
Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art
Gunpowder on canvas
Collection of the artist
Cai Guo-Qiang’s Cuyahoga River Lightning is a reminder that water is a life force that can be sickened or destroyed. This work was commissioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art for an environmental disaster that took place over fifty years ago: in 1969, a section of the infamous Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland caught fire following more than a century of pollution from the oil, steel, and sewage industries. Though fires on the river were common, the ’69 fire became a flashpoint for the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States.
In this work, Cai traced the river’s path using gunpowder, which he then ignited. The burnt residue is visible on the canvas (the adjacent video shows the creation process of the gunpowder painting). The combustion created a spectacle of destruction while also conveying the transformative power of change.
Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, who call it huoyao, meaning “fire medicine” and the river’s undulating path evokes qi, meaning “vital energy,” in Chinese medicine.