Mr Ye Who Loves Dragon is a large rectangular drawing on paper by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang that was created from the residue left by the ignition of combustible materials. The composition consists of an undulating line of dense brown and black material of varying density and width. The line is burnt into the paper, and follows the route of the ignition fuse arranged prior to detonation. The scorch marks are dark at the centre of the line and fade to a lighter brown at its periphery.
The drawing is the residue or documentation of a performance that took place inside the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London on 29 January 2003 and is the smaller of two drawings created in front of an audience during the event. Commemorating Chinese New Year, the event launched Tate & Egg Live, a season of live performance pieces. To produce the drawing, Cai arranged a trail of fuses, explosive powders and cardboard stencils over the paper’s surface. At the time of the performance, a slow burning stick of incense triggered the ignition of the gunpowder, producing an explosion of light, sound and smoke. Weighted variably on top of the powder, the stencils affected the spread, progression and intensity of the blaze, and consequently the appearance of the scorch marks. The heavy fibrous Japanese paper used as the support had been especially prepared to withstand and absorb the heat and impact of the combustion.
The title of this work alludes to a popular Chinese idiom used to describe a person whose appreciation of a subject is revealed to be merely superficial. In the fable from which the idiom emerges, Mr Ye had proudly decorated his home with abundant dragon motifs to such an extent that his love of the mythical creature became known throughout the kingdom. However, when a real dragon heard about the house and decided to pay it a visit, wrapping its tail around the building and poking its head through a window, Mr Ye was terrified and ran away. The idiom’s relationship to the work, Cai wrote in his proposal for the project, is open to many interpretations, ‘such as the Western attitude towards the East, especially modern day China; the Museum’s invitation for the artist and his project; or even the artist’s deprecating humor towards his own history of tirelessly using dragons as subject matter.’ (Quoted in Blume, accessed 9 September 2014.)
The drawing Mr Ye Who Loves Dragon is directly related to a pyrotechnic commission titled Ye Gong Hao Long: Explosion Project for Tate Modern, which took place outside Tate Modern on 31 January 2003. Beginning at the north side of the Millennium Bridge, Cai set off a very large firework in the form of a dragon, which once ignited surged along the length of the bridge before traversing the façade of Tate Modern, coiling itself around the building’s prominent tower and burning out in a cloud of smoke.
Cai grew up in the Fujian province of China and has spoken of the relevance of gunpowder to his cultural background and his subsequent work, stating in 2002 that: ‘in China every significant social occasion of any kind, good or bad – weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home – is marked by the explosion of fireworks … I saw gunpowder used in both good ways and bad, in destruction and reconstruction. Gunpowder was invented in China as a by-product of alchemy.’ (Cai in Friis-Hansen, Zaya and Takashi 2002, p.14.)
Dana Friis-Hansen, Octavio Zaya and Serizawa Takashi (eds.), Cai Guo-Qiang, London 2002.
Mary Blume, ‘Gunpowder and Art: Explosive Beauty’, New York Times, 18 January 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/18/style/18iht-blume_ed3_.html, accessed 9 September 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.