Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘Mystery Circle’ is a bang-up night at MOCA


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Wait -- he’s shooting the fireworks at us?

That was the general worry Saturday night as Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang readied his explosion show outside the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. After all, fireworks should go up, vertical, away from people -- not toward them.

But Cai didn’t get his reputation as a world-renowned pyro-wiz by doing what’s expected. “Mystery Circle,” Saturday’s event, would be no exception.


“You will witness something remarkable,” said Jeffrey Deitch, MOCA’s director, in his short opening remarks. He added: “It’s going to go by very quickly. Make sure you don’t miss it.”

You couldn’t if you tried. Around 7:40 p.m., the sky rapidly darkening, the two-minute warning was given, then it was one minute, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, a spirited countdown -- and boom.

Some 40,000 rockets, arranged on the northern wall of the Geffen Contemporary in a crop circle-like pattern, exploded outward in a massive display of light, heat and sound. The packed crowd, gathered just a little to the side and at a safe distance away, went wild. Most cheered ecstatically; though a few were seen to duck and cover.

“I think I pulled a muscle,” said one, straightening up after the explosion nearly toppled her. “It looked like a firework was about to hit me in the face!” But it wasn’t over. As the remnants of the crop circles burned on the wall, greenish UFO spinners were launched and, in the final phase, the headpiece of an alien-god figure ignited in a finale of explosions. The whole shebang, part of the Cai’s lifelong project to connect with space and extraterrestrials through art, lasted a little under two minutes. Everything might not have gone off exactly as planned -- some people were left wondering whether the UFOs actually achieved liftoff -- but that’s part of Cai’s process: preparing meticulously, but accepting the unexpected.

People who missed the explosion will still be able to see the video, along with a compilation of Cai’s past explosion projects, at “Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder,” the accompanying exhibition now running at the Geffen Contemporary through July 30. The West Coast solo debut for New York-based Cai, “Sky Ladder” includes three original gunpowder drawings -- meditations on nature, gravity and the cosmos -- and a crop circle installation hung upside down from the ceiling.

Cai, who directed the visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, still remembers his first time launching a single rocket at a canvas, when he was a young artist in the early ’80s.


“Never did I think that 30 years later,” Cai said through a translator Saturday night, “I’d be using 40,000 rockets and lighting them off all at the same time.”


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-- Jason Kehe

Zen Sekizawa.