Cai Guo-Qiang - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "The roar of a tiger blows gusts,
    The leap of a dragon rouses clouds."

    In an unprecedented move in 2008, the Guggenheim Museum held the first large-scale solo exhibition of a Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe. With high regard for the artist, the museum stated, ‘Not only did Cai break through the conventions of contemporary art by drawing freely from myths and legends, military history, Taoist cosmology, Buddhist philosophy, gunpowder-related technologies, and Chinese culture, thus making all his creations part of an organic entity that continually engages with and renews itself through an exploration of social issues. At the same time, he also brings together what artists refer to as 'the visible and invisible worlds'’.


    Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage Two at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, USA, 2004

    The issues that Cai Guo-Qiang explores in his work are tied to the experiences he had during his travels.  After many years living in various countries, Cai has developed an expansive worldview. After 2000, he began to take interest in international politics and cultural differences. Two Wandering Tigers, a work made from gunpowder on paper, was created in 2005. With his transcendental and unique approach, Cai Guo-Qiang created a thread connecting China's history and culture. By traversing the boundaries between past and present, he criticises the blind hero worship common in the old times and examines the contradictions that have emerged over the years, arising from people's scrutiny of both new and old values.


    Inopportune: Stage Two


    Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage Two at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, USA, 2004

    In 2004, Cai showcased Inopportune: Stage Two for the first time at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the United States. The image of leaping tigers being pierced by thousands of arrows was inspired by one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Wu Song Fights a Tiger on Jingyang Ridge, a chapter in the book Water Margin, tells the story of Wu Song who remained calm in the face of danger and fought a ferocious tiger by himself, eventually defeating it. As a result, Wu Song has become a hero known throughout the ages. However, the nine tiger models in Inopportune: Stage Two are all pierced by flying arrows, densely sticking out of the tigers' torsos. The injured tigers twist their bodies in the air, conveying the struggles and grief of the massacred. There is an air of cruelty and violence emanating from the artwork. Here, man's battle with tigers no longer represents the heroism that celebrates the triumph of man over his mortal limits. Instead, the spotlight is on a concern for the vulnerable, and the work triggers a contradictory sense of sympathy from the viewer. Through criticism of the violence of predators, Cai examines the concept of heroism in contemporary society. Two Wandering Tigers continues the conversation on the transition between old and new values seen in Inopportune: Stage Two. The artist has adopted an alternate visual representation for his artistic concept for this work. Since installation artworks are difficult to move and preserve, Cai has employed a two-dimensional form of expression based on his past large-scale explosives-on-paper projects. This way, the volatility and incidental nature of explosions and performance art have now been captured in a form that is possible to collect permanently. 


    Zao Wou-Ki, Mistral, 1957. Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

    "The uncontrollability of gunpowder and variations in time, space, and climate, result in a different set of meanings and expressions produced through combustion for every exhibition, each with its own theme and circumstances. After a long period of planning, we uncover the power and beauty of instantaneous combustions." —Cai Guo-Qiang

    Controllable yet Uncontrollable


    Cai Guo-Qiang, who is adept at portraying animals in his works, likes to work with eagles, wolves, lions, and tigers, all strong and beautiful animals. Their strength and beauty are used to set off the tension of gunpowder explosions. Among them, tigers are a key element of Cai's journey in art. He said, 'Tigers are closer to reality. Lions are too distant from modern society. I have used many lions in my fengshui works. The power of lions is divine, not animalistic, and the cultural symbolism of lions is too strong. Tigers are more material.'


    Xu Beihong, Tiger, 1918. Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, China

    Two Wandering Tigers emphasises the tigers' limber bodies and turning posture, recalling the description of the tiger in Wu Song Fights a Tiger on Jingyang Ridge, 'With its front paws pushing on the ground, the tiger lifts its waist and flips itself up.' The characteristics of gunpowder are a perfect match for the image of a tiger. Utilising the explosive power of gunpowder at the moment of detonation, Cai Guo-Qiang has vividly captured the majestic nature of tigers. When gunpowder is ignited, it leaves behind strong burn marks on the paper. It is a medium that is 'controllable yet uncontrollable.' Cai manipulates the path of the combustion, the airflow, and constraints on the cardboard to control varying degrees of combustion, fully demonstrating the artist's intended control over uncontrollable invisible forces. The random patterns left behind by the ember across the paper resemble the fur of the two tigers standing tall in the wind, their fur ruffled by the gust. 'The roar of a tiger blows gusts, the leap of a dragon rouses clouds.' The image of leaping tigers in mid-air thus comes alive on the paper. Cai has masterfully manipulated the flame to create Two Wandering Tigers, striking a fine balance between ignition and extinguishment to transform gunpowder into a pair of airborne magnificent tigers that look ready to strike.


    Cai shows his interest in the development of human civilisation, from an international perspective. He skilfully uses symbols, and, by extension, their spiritual attributes, as the medium of his message. In Shuowen Jiezi, the definition of 'Hu' (tiger) is given as such: 'Tiger, king of the mountains and beasts.' Whether in the east or the west, the tiger is a symbol of supremacy and power. Through the clever reference to a Chinese literary story, Cai has shared his take on the current circumstances of the western world. As the wheels of time roll forward, great powers now face the critical issue of power transfer. Cai’s works communicate the artist's observations and reflections on current affairs and thus carry great contemporary significance and historical value. In Two Wandering Tigers, Cai Guo-Qiang taps on the essential commonality between the explosiveness of gunpowder and the ferocity of tigers, and uses the power generated at the moment of combustion to paint an impressive image of the beasts. His organic handling of the bursts form tracks on the paper, and these tracks come together to form an image of the formidable roaring king of the jungle. The artist brings together the characteristics of the tangible gunpowder and the intangible spirituality of an animal to create an echo between ideology and formal elements. Two Wandering Tigers can be regarded as the perfect example in this series of works.


    i Zhao Yang and Wei Jing Li, Cai Guo Qiang, Guilin, 2010, p.134.

    • Provenance

      The Estella Collection
      Contemporary Chinese Art III - The Estella Collection, Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 9 April 2008, lot 1149
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Made in China: Works from the Estella Collection, 16 March - 5 August 2007, fig. 2 (illustrated)
      Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, 18 September 2007 - 1 March 2008

Property of a Distinguished Private Asian Collector


Two Wandering Tigers

signed, titled and dated '"Two Wandering Tigers" [in Chinese] Cai Guo-Qiang [in Chinese and Pinyin] 2005' lower left
gunpowder and ink on paper
200 x 300 cm. (78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

HK$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for HK$4,410,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020