PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECITON OF JOHN BRANSTEN
The property from the estate of John Bransten, featured here across the Evening and Day sales, encapsulates both a distinct moment in the evolution of Chinese contemporary art, as well as the final cap in a lifetime of collecting, study, and connoisseurship.
John Bransten was born into a San Francisco family that was already among the foremost collecting families of their era, acquiring works by the likes of Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, and Harry Bertoia, long before it was the fashion to do so. Mr. Bransten continued that tradition with his wife Rena, and, beginning in the late-1950s, sought out works by such mainstays of American and European mid-century art as Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, and others.
Even as Mr. Bransten moved between fields - including a late-in-life study of Irish poetry and embrace of post-War American photography and American conceptual art - Bransten's interests were always marked by in-depth lines of inquiry and study. In Chinese contemporary art, Mr. Bransten was captivated by the cultural transformation taking place in post-Mao China, and the works he selected in the last decade of his life reflect his appreciation of this nascent movement. Ranging from the early conceptual video of Zhang Peili and Qiu Zhijie, the analytical and deconstructive works of Xu Bing, the iconoclastic paintings of Wang Guangyi, to the transcendent works of Cai Guo Qiang, Bransten's collection embodies the ways in which artists grappled with their changing social and political environment on registers ranging from the cosmic and philosophical, the intimate and personal, and the bluntly material. True to his literary bent, the collection pays special attention to language and the slippery nature of meaning-making, truth and representation in a place like contemporary China.
Among the highlights of the collection are two rare and exceptional works of Cai Guo-Qiang and Wang Guangyi, works which in many ways signpost the two extremes of the collection and of the Chinese avant-garde art itself, the ways in which it reinvigorated inherited aesthetic traditions within China, and simultaneously brought singular new approaches to contemporary art practices in the international arena.
"In my art and my life, I've always had a fascination with the unknown world and mysterious forces, a fascination that began when I was a child. For me, it provides something like a passageway through time, and in art we can move through that passageway to find both past and future, and worlds seen and unseen. This includes East and West, tradition and modernity, and languages in all their different forms. It takes us back to a freer and more natural state."
- Cai Guo-Qiang
Gunpowder in Chinese is "huo yao," literally means "fire medicine." As one of the four great inventions of ancient China, it made significant contributions to the economic and technological advance of civilization as it spread around the world in the Middle Ages. In the art of Cai Guo-Qiang, however, we return to the notion of gunpowder as a fiery "medicine," which relates to its discovery by ancient Chinese alchemists in their repeated attempts to find the elixir of life that could free them from the ravages of aging. Later, of course, gunpowder's role would have more to do with its destructive potential as a weapon, but its original discovery arose from the desire for life and the fear of death. As early as 1984, Cai began using gunpowder for the effects its explosions created on canvas, and worked primarily in two styles at this time, the first being presentations of natural scenes in an abstract style, and the second drawing inspiration from aspects of traditional Chinese thought or history. The temporal outlook displayed in the art of Cai originates from one of his youthful travels. He set out on a journey following the Silk Road and into Tibet, hoping to find some kind of new source in the ancient territory and losing himself in nature and the relics of past civilizations. The trip took him through the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, the Dunhuang caves, and the Yellow River basin, and above the desolate plateaus and deserts he crossed he saw a vast canopy of sky and stars extending to the farthest sphere of the universe. All of this, he believed, would, along with the Earth, pass through its own cycles of reincarnation and extinction, and it was within this context that he began to view the ceaseless turmoil of human affairs from ancient times to the present. "I entered into a dialogue with all that was around me - the soul of the universe, dreams of ancient times, and my feelings as a young man, being close and in love with nature. But there was also a feeling of bitterness. All of these things were branded on my heart." In 1985 Cai produced The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs (Lot 1029), a work that combined his abstract oil compositions and his practiced understanding in gunpowder drawings. In playing with the additive process in oil painting and the subtractive or destructive nature of gunpowder explosion in the same painting, Cai delivers an abstract view of his explorations in an original truth in Chinese aesthetics. Cai's ambition for the work is reflected in its huge dimensions, and in the way it reflects his ideal of a kind of timelessness that reaches into the deep past and provides a new perspective on the present.
In The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs we find man-made edifices, which, after ages of corrosion and the impact of external forces, are on the verge of ruin. Cai injects a sense of narrative detail into the lines and blocks of color of this mostly non-representational work, urging the viewer to reflect on the brilliance and glory of civilizations long past. While these relics represent structures that were once the work of man, they now stands in ruins because of the destructive force of explosions, also created by man; in conveying these related concepts, the artist drives home with exceptional clarity on the notion that "the same water that bears the boat up can also swallow it." Cai once said, "My insistence on using gunpowder as a creative element derives from one very basic motivation. I want to explore the relationship between the forces tearing things apart and the forces of creation." Injecting this concept into the work, Cai implies that while history does repeat itself unceasingly, human civilization nevertheless continues to advance through both creation and destruction. The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs, then, is more than merely a commentary on historical events of the past; it may also depict a future we have yet to meet.
In The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs, he once again adopts a downward-looking perspective, providing within the work not only an Earth-based view of his subject, but at the same time a view of the Earth from other points in the cosmos. "Ruins," as we think of them, usually call up images of ancient human civilizations, but in the vastness of a universe where distance is measured in light years, the stars we see with the naked eye may be many, or many thousands, of light years distant, and the images we finally see when their light strikes our eyes are already thousands of years old. They are now certainly "ruins" from this point of view. Thus The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs is not just a meditation on the sweeping changes of previous historical eras, but may also be the face of the Earth from a distant perspective elsewhere in the universe, where, over the vast distances and spans of time, all will certainly have become ruins. The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs is also then a reminder of our own smallness in the universe. The breadth of perspective and the grand vision of the work give us a new view of ourselves, the Earth's history, and the living universe.
Early in China's history, around the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, the poet Qu Yuan looked at the Earth and the sky, wondered about the origins of all things, and asked, "When all was void and the Earth began, who was there who could pass the story on? When all things above and below were still formless, what could be used to measure or describe them?" These are two of the more than 100 questions which Qu Yuan asks in the poem "Tian Wen," from "Songs of the Chu." In it he examines the formation of the universe, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the order of the mountains and rivers, the propagation of life, the rise and fall of dynasties, and the vicissitudes of human affairs, seeking to find the hidden order behind the workings of nature and of human society as well. The Chu people believed themselves descended from the fire deity Zhu Rong, and thus developed the custom worshipping fire and its redness. Cai's hometown of Quanzhou in Fujian Province, for geographical reasons, is connected with the Chu culture in numerous ways. In addition, the artist was very intrigued, and respectful of, the various properties of gunpowder: its unpredictability, transience, and uncontrollability in the brief instant of the blast, and the concentrated energies it releases. These all linked with the elements of Chu culture that were his birthright, and the vivid crimson reds in The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs underscore the quality of fire itself while creating an atmosphere of deep and ancient mystery. And, in its respect for supernatural forces and its exploration of the unknown, it also harks back to Qu Yuan, who more than 2000 years ago put forward his questions for the ages. Thus in The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs, Cai incorporates the ancient quest for knowledge when faced with the vastness of the universe, and engages at another level in exploring his own Chinese cultural roots. The Brand of Archean Era-Ancient Customs is a strong and distinctive work, representative of Cai Guo-Qiang's ouput. It crosses time and space to present a cosmic view that is also informed with the myths and legends of the ancient world.