Cai Guo-Qiang is probably the marquee name on this list. The contemporary Chinese artist, now based in NYC, has had his explosive works shown all over the world. His incredibly influential gunpowder pieces were inspired by the Maoist tenet, “destroy nothing, create nothing.” Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (1993) featured a mile-long gunpowder fuse that extended westward from the end of the Great Wall of China into the Gobi Desert, while the massive, 42-panel piece Odyssey (2010) is installed at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. To commemorate the opening of MoMA PS1 here in NYC in 2003, he was commissioned to create a huge firework rainbow beckoning guests to Long Island City.
Instead of exploding them in the air, Bronx-based artist Rosemarie Fiore harnesses the power of fireworks in extremely enclosed environments, more interested in the pigment traces they leave behind than the grandeur of the explosion itself. The resulting kaleidoscopic pieces look almost as though they were created with pastels or chalk — not high-grade explosives!
Steven Spazuk‘s artworks are generally smaller, but no less detailed. To create his intricate black-and-white portraits, he singes the paper with an open flame, going back over it with handmade brushes and feathers, scraping away soot to create elegant line-work. And those brushes? He’s made them from everything from Barbie hair to his own wife’s hair that had fallen out during chemo treatments. 2016 will see the Québécois artist in solo shows from Canada to Norway and Japan.
Going back several decades, you’ll find another influential “fire artist” working in France in the 1960s: Yves Klein. Klein would cover women in a flame retardant, and have them leave their imprints on fiber board. Then, he’d blast the board with a flame-thrower (!), leaving behind a negative of the women’s imprint. These are much more elemental works than say, Spazuk’s, reminding us of the primal power of fire.
A contemporary of Klein’s, German artist and cofounder of the ZERO foundation Otto Piene worked mainly in smoke and soot as opposed to open flames. His Rauchbilder (“smoke pictures”) were created by lightly burning pigmented paper with a candle or gas burner, leaving soot remnants. Stenciled grids and other patterns would control the flame, and hence the soot left behind, resulting in any number of designs.
Flaming Lotus Girls
You didn’t think we’d end this list without a look at Burning Man, did you? The Flaming Lotus Girls are a collective of over 100 men and women dedicated to the art of interactive, large-scale fire sculptures — the kind you see all over the Playa in Black Rock City. The San Francisco-based group’s perhaps most well-known piece is The Serpent Mother. Since debuting at Burning Man in 2006, The Serpent Mother has made appearances at music festivals, parades, and events around the world. The 168-foot-long serpent features 41 different propane eruptions along her spine, which reach heights of 20 feet, and a hydraulic-operated head and jaws. The audience (from a presumably safe distance) can actually control the serpent, making it both move and flame.