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On a Monday evening in March, 150 guests are milling around behind a low metal barricade in MOCA's hangarlike Geffen space. All of them had to sign a release to get in, waiving their rights in case something goes wrong in the making of Cai Guo-Qiang's first gunpowder painting in Los Angeles — a work created by spreading gunpowder on canvas, lighting a fuse and then letting it explode. The crowd is filled with curiosity but also a little trepidation, even though lots of fire marshals have made sure everything's safe.

On the other side of the barricade are eight large canvasses, each 8 by 11 feet, lying side by side on the floor. Splashes and swirls of black powder already cover their surfaces. The artist moves slowly around, double- and triple-checking every section.

Cai, a tall, gangly man with closely cropped hair, is wearing socks and slippers so that he can step atop the canvas. (The canvas has a special bracket underneath as support.) He holds a brush attached to a long stick in order to swirl the gunpowder. The finished work, Chaos in Nature, will depict five forces of nature: tornado, tsunami, lightning, volcano, hurricane. After Cai is finally satisfied, some 40 volunteers in special black T-shirts lay down layers of cardboard and stencils — to help shape the gunpowder into recognizable images — while Cai's assistants make final adjustments and fittings.

Next to Ai Weiwei, Cai is probably the best known Chinese artist in the world today. “Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder” at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space, opening April 8, will be his first solo show on the West Coast. “He's one of the rare artists who's invented a new way to make art,” MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch says.

MOCA has commissioned Cai for four works — two on canvas, one on paper and one to be created on an outside wall of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space at the opening on April 7, via a fireworks display open to the public. Additionally, inside the space, an upside-down wheat field, called Crop Circle, will hang overhead.

But while Cai's large gunpowder works populate gallery walls — or, in Pasadena, the inside of the East West Bank — watching him and his team makes one realize he's very much a performance artist.

Tonight, things are running behind — the ignition was supposed to take place at 7 p.m., but it's not ready until an hour later. Guests are ordered to take a seat on the bleachers — that is, to get back from the barricades and the explosion to come. Deitch makes a few remarks — thanking funders, of course, including East West Bank.

Then Cai steps forward to speak, through a translator. “After I light the fuse,” he says, “things will explode, bang bang bang, like firecrackers.”

Indeed they do — the explosions last only seconds before filling the room with smoke. Volunteers using special pads quickly douse the sparks dancing around the edges of the work. Ceiling fans are turned on and a roll-up door is opened. Guests jump up, a few running out to get some fresh air, but most moving to the barricade to watch as the layers are peeled back, revealing the black-and-white swirls of a hurricane and the funnel of a tornado.

Born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, China, Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy, which explains his interdisciplinary approach to art and his penchant for public performance. He left China in 1986, going to Japan, where he developed the use of gunpowder as an art medium.

In 1995 he moved to the United States; he works and lives in New York. In the '90s Cai became a truly international presence, winning the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for his installation, Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard. In 2005 he curated the first China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and in 2008 he was director of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. He famously conceived “Footprints of History,” in which TV viewers watched a series of footprint-shaped starburst fireworks “walk” in the sky from Tiananmen Square to Olympic Stadium. It was later revealed that the fireworks had been digitally spliced into the telecast. Cai responded to criticism by saying it was a “conceptual work” that existed on two planes, the real and the virtual.

In 2008 Cai also had his first U. S. retrospective, “I Want to Believe,” at New York's Guggenheim Museum. It was a spectacular show that brought record numbers to the museum, and it included several epic installations — suspended from the ceiling in the central atrium of the museum was a series of cars that appeared to be dropping and exploding. The title, “I Want to Believe,” referenced both his attitude toward his socialist education in China — which promoted socialism as an almost religious experience — and his ongoing fascination with the forces of the unseen world.

Cai's work reflects his heritage, as gunpowder is a Chinese invention and he uses the traditional ink brush of Chinese art. Some have noted aspects of Taoism, a philosophy that provides the concept of qi (cosmic energy), and an acceptance of oppositional forces.

“Cai mines gunpowder's charged identification with China and simultaneously alludes to its original medicinal use and its ongoing equation with violence,” writes Alexandra Munroe, who co-curated his Guggenheim show. “The underlying principle and essential experience … is transformation through conflict.”

Inherent in Cai's work is the exploration of destruction and creation. When the gunpowder explodes, elements are used up, surfaces blackened. In a 2002 performance in Hokkaido, Japan, the form of a “UFO,” an inflated blimp about 30 feet high, placed at a racetrack, was blown up. But this destruction is also the creation of an artwork.

Like most Chinese contemporary artists, Cai is still attached to representing concrete things, so works are meant to depict figures, forces or landscapes. In Chaos in Nature, Cai says, “I'm showing forms of energy, forces of nature.” Childhood Spaceship, another gunpowder painting he made four days later, includes human figures and the skyline of Shanghai.

Cai is known for enlisting volunteers to help in the making of his work, and the 100 spaces for the Los Angeles project filled up quickly. “I wouldn't have missed it,” says one volunteer, Samuel Freeman, who's moving his art gallery from Bergamot Station to Culver City. “He's been really great to the volunteers, a smile here, a word there.”

(When Deitch failed to acknowledge the volunteers on Monday evening, Freeman lodged a protest — and Deitch did do so at subsequent performances.)

A few of the volunteers even came from out of town — Garcia Sinclair and Natis White, both studying studio art in San Francisco, paid for airfare and hotels for a week to be part of the action. “It's been amazing to witness his process — it's almost a sacred thing,” White says.

“We don't really need to use volunteers,” Cai says during the making of Childhood Spaceship on Friday evening —  further evidence that the performance and ritual of the event are part of the work (presumably his staff in his New York studio could have done it instead). This time he worked on a gigantic length of paper, more than 100 feet long, and supervised the volunteers, who cut out stencils made from the pictures and photocopies he'd provided, before helping him decide where to place the images.

“Volunteers are like the gunpowder,” he tells the gathered crowd. “You're never quite sure what to expect.”

Cai Guo-Qiang's “Sky Ladder” runs April 8-July 30 at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo. A fireworks display will take place outside the museum at 7:30 p.m. on Sat., April 7.

LA Weekly