Cai Guo-Qiang’s VR fireworks bring together advanced technology and traditional craft
Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City is the Chinese artist’s first virtual reality work, created in collaboration with HTC Vive Arts, a colourful daytime fireworks performance with a surprising physical dimension
With gunpowder as his medium and the sky as his canvas, Cai Guo-Qiang has created ambitious installations that defy the limits of human imagination. His greatest hits include a transient rainbow glistening over New York’s East River, an enormous explosion of colour above Shanghai, and an illuminated ladder soaring 500m from his hometown of Quanzhou into the heavens. Given this track record, one wonders what he would have to gain from venturing into virtual reality – a technology that has helped many artists realise ideas that can’t (yet) be given physical form, but whose results often pale in comparison to IRL experiences.
With Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, we now have our answer. Created in partnership with HTC Vive Arts and debuted last week at the Palace Museum in Beijing, it is the Chinese artist’s first virtual reality artwork, and the grand finale of a solo exhibition that coincides with the 600th anniversary of the palace complex. Like Cai’s most memorable pieces, this new artwork is limited in duration, with a run time of only five minutes. But it packs a visual punch, and more importantly, breaks new ground for how its medium can be used.
As we put on our VR headsets, we see the artist drifting into slumber. We are transported into his dreams, where he pursues a cat that is darting into the palace grounds, towards a blinding light at the end of the entrance tunnel. The Hall of Supreme Harmony – the most impressive building within the complex – comes into view, but its distinctive red walls and golden roof tiles, as well as the adjoining stone courtyard, are all white as snow, as though in an architectural rendering. Then a burst of gunpowder brings a splash of yellow to the clear blue skies and disperses a flock of crows.
So begins a daytime fireworks display that brings the Forbidden City to life, inspired by the fireworks historically held at the site to mark the Lunar New Year. We see gunpowder shoot up from every corner, creating colourful trails of smoke and bright sparks, then raining vivid pigments over the palace complex. Alternating between the viewpoint of the cat (pouncing across the rooftops) and a rapidly shifting birds-eye view, we see colours released into the sky one by one, then all at the same time, layering together into one kaleidoscopic display that stretches as far as the eye can see. A fittingly grand performance for a historical seat of power, it gives us a glimpse of the awesome might that ancient Chinese emperors must have felt.
For an artist who once oversaw the pyrotechnics of the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City is not exactly a breakthrough in scale or location. But what it offers is a newfound range of perspectives, allowing us to experience fireworks in a whole new way. As the artist explains, the use of virtual reality ‘highlights the senses unique to one’s experience of fireworks – the feelings of losing control, of danger, tension, and excitement’. To witness the display from multiple angles in quick succession, and even hurtle mid-air through clouds of colourful smoke is a cathartic experience distinct from IRL viewing. It offers a spectacle of a new sort.
And what makes Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City truly unique is the way it was created. We might mistakenly assume that Cai relied on 3D animation software, which these days can create images that are virtually indistinguishable from reality. In fact he wanted to avoid the kind of computer-generated effects associated with Hollywood movies, believing that they lacked in ‘warmth’ and ‘animalistic energy’. So he commissioned the artwork’s components in real life and went about filming them, bringing an analogue dimension to what is often a purely digital medium.
Craftsmen from his hometown of Quanzhou, where Cai had launched his career-defining Sky Ladder five years ago, spent five months painstakingly creating a model of the Forbidden City in alabaster. What we see through our VR headsets is in fact an intricate 3D scan of the model, with its handcrafted textures, rather than a mere rendering. (The model has been included in the Palace Museum exhibition to clue viewers into the physicality of the production process). ‘I believe that for certain works, I shouldn’t use the cleverest way [of making],’ explains Cai.
‘Sometimes works must be born from time-consuming and humble processes to naturally generate their energy and character.’
The colourful fireworks are likewise real, launched in full scale by the Liuyang River and then filmed in 360 degrees so they can be viewed in virtual reality. It’s a staggeringly expensive endeavour, but one that Cai considers worthwhile. When he first decided to experiment with VR, he had doubted whether it would work with his temperament – ‘it led me to a more controlled and less direct way of creation, not the kind of direct, powerful dialogues with heaven and earth that I aspire to conduct,’ he recalls. The physical fireworks display is his way of compensating for this predictability – unlike animated fireworks, where every blast has to be modelled with mathematical precision, the real thing comes with an element of chance, a capacity for emotion, and the ability to surprise even its creator. He hopes ‘people might feel that this VR work is a little wild.’
Also important is the fact that Cai was able to involve artisans whose expertise is increasingly marginalised by the forward march of technology. Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City amplifies their work and gives them a rare opportunity to be a part of something that feels very much from the future. Cai likens the new piece to his ‘Peasant da Vincis’ project from the early 2000s, where he collected ambitious engineering projects by common Chinese amateurs, starting with a homemade submarine by a farmer in Anhui province. Then as now, Cai pays homage to the pioneering spirit and remarkable craft of ordinary Chinese people.
‘I’m interested in grafting different mediums and merging diverse languages together, not minding the final results’ rawness and contradiction,’ Cai concludes. ‘What’s important is that the work must convey a concept and attitude.’ §