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Cai Guo-qiang The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century (Photo Documentation)

Photograph of a man standing on a promenade with his back turned, against the Manhattan skyline across the water. Puffs of smoke rise from his raised right hand. Two figures on the viewer's left turn their heads towards the man.

M+, Hong Kong. Gift of the artist in memory of Chen Ai-Gan, 2016, © Cai Guo-Qiang. Photo: M+, Hong Kong


Artist Cai Guo-qiang made the series of works depicted in these photographs. Fireworks and gunpowder feature often in his art, and we wanted to know why.  


There was a time I felt I was being controlled by Chinese society; and similar to my father, I was quite timid by nature. So, I was deliberately looking for a medium to fight against the control I felt and the timidity in my personality. I chose to use gunpowder as it provides me with a lot of freedom, and at the same time I’m able to dictate what to do with it, to control and manipulate it.

If we had to choose a significant visual symbol for twentieth century, that would be the mushroom cloud: there’s the nuclear project, also known as the Manhattan Project.  


Cai Quo-qiang made this piece in the 1990s, an important time in his development as an artist. Hearing how he went about it was fascinating.  


This is the first piece of work I did after I came to the U.S. It connects American society, its politics and art together. It embodies my attitude as an artist. The pieces were created in various locations in the U.S. between February and April 1996. Each explosion lasted around three to six seconds.  

With approval from the FBI and the Bureau of Energy Resources, I became the first Chinese citizen allowed to enter the Nevada Nuclear Site. My assistant and I bought the Chinese firecrackers and the materials needed for the explosion from Chinatown and made a small hand-held bomb in the hotel we stayed at in Las Vegas. During our visit to the Nevada Nuclear Site, we quickly launched the hand-made ‘bomb’ on-site when nobody was looking, and there was a little mushroom cloud in my hand for a few short seconds.  

We were very quickly subdued! They even notified Washington about this incident! Instructed by the central authority, the team responsible for nuclear research came in to check and investigate the ‘bomb’ we’d made with the Chinese firecracker—it must have looked like a joke to those nuclear specialists! They also insisted on monitoring the health of all officers who were present at the time. A few months later, the report came back with no problems, but a nice little surprise—our technical director’s wife had become pregnant!


The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century is an explosion performance created by Cai Guo-Qiang in 1996. The collection includes a documentation series of eight colour photographs in landscape orientation, each measuring 64.6 centimetres high and 91.5 centimetres wide. They were inkjet printed in 2007.

The photographs document the artist conducting a performance by making a gunpowder explosion at a different location. There is a miniature mushroom cloud rising in each photo.

The performance locations are places of historical or artistic significance across the United States, such as Manhattan in New York, the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons, and the Spiral Jetty sculpture at Utah. All photos were taken during daytime or at dusk. The artist stood at some distance from the camera. Turning his back to the camera, he faced the scenery from a far distance. The scenery includes the dense skyscrapers of the Manhattan business district, the Statue of Liberty, the nuclear test site in a deserted area, the Spiral Jetty at the edge of the Great Salt Lake, a barren mesa, and a desert. In each location, the artist raised his right arm holding a palm-sized tube of gunpowder, and detonated the device, which produced a white mushroom cloud which rose up into the sky. Some of the mushroom clouds were about the same height as the artist, others were twice his height.

In the photos, the farther away an object is from the camera, the smaller it appears. Which means a miniature mushroom cloud that rises in the middle ground of the image creates the illusion that a huge mushroom cloud is rising from the prosperous city far away in the background.