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Cai Guo-Qiang, China’s master gunpowder artist, has provided the fireworks for the 600th anniversary of Beijing’s Forbidden City — though, like so much across 2020’s cultural sector, the pops of color and sound are virtual. Part of Odyssey and Homecoming, an exhibition at the Palace Museum comprising more than 180 works, Cai’s first virtual reality (VR) artwork “Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City” was created in partnership with HTC VIVE Arts.  

Three key elements make up the work: a large alabaster model of China’s Ming and Qing Imperial Palace hand-carved by craftsmen from Cai’s hometown in Quanzhou, Fujian province; a layered gunpowder drawing; and a VR film.

Why it Matters

New mode of VR — VR technology is associated with adaptability, control, and precision. Cai, however, challenges these VR features by sculpting a precise alabaster model of the Forbidden City, instead of generating one by computer, before 3D-scanning the model and combining it with 360-degree filming of the fireworks display. The result is a work that avoids appearing overly sleek, as often found in digital works

The artist's VR work "Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City," installed at the exhibition Odyssey and Homecoming, 2020. Image: photography by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio

The artist’s VR work “Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City,” installed at the exhibition Odyssey and Homecoming, 2020. Photography: Lin Yi. Image: courtesy Cai Studio

Unexpected perspectives — Cai’s idea for “Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City” was sparked by the feline residents of the Forbidden City. He moved away from a human perspective, allowing users to experience the firework display through the eyes of cats and birds.

Literal homecoming — In some respects, the Palace Museum launched his career as an international artist. Cai’s friend introduced him to the museum’s deputy director who in turn connected him with art dealers and artists in Japan (where he studied in the late 1980s). Having traveled widely and been based in New York for the majority of his career, his first exhibition at the Palace Museum completes the circle.

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In the artist’s words

“It’s my first-time using VR as an artistic medium, and I hope to destabilize the sleek and flawless aesthetics commonly associated with works created by high technology, and to explore its capacity to evoke raw emotions. Ultimately, through the immersive 360-degree fireworks, I hope to create a channel for audiences to have a dialogue with a broader space and time.” — Cai Guo-Qiang

In HTC VIVE Arts’ words

“HTC VIVE Arts is committed to working with artists to experiment and innovate, using digital technologies to push beyond traditional boundaries. We are delighted to have been able to support Cai Guo-Qiang’s creative exploration of a new medium in his practice, with his first artwork made using virtual reality. The result is remarkable — ‘Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City’ will surely bring audiences a most extraordinary and memorable experience of contemporary art.” — Victoria Chang, Director of HTC VIVE Arts

What it Looks Like

Still of Cai Guo-Qiang's VR work, "Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City"

Still of Cai Guo-Qiang's VR work, "Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City"

Still of Cai Guo-Qiang's VR work, "Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City"

Still of Cai Guo-Qiang's VR work, "Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City"

Stills of Cai Guo-Qiang’s VR work, “Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City.” All images: courtesy Cai Studio

Edited by Richard Whiddington

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