Science Meets Artistry: the Work of Cai Guo-Qiang

Fireworks and Performance Art


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing, Composing and Planning


In this lesson, students will discuss the work of artist Cai Guo-Qiang within historical and cultural contexts. They will examine organizational principles in works of art, including their own works, and will understand the technological, logistical, and artistic factors that an artist takes into consideration when creating performance-oriented works in public spaces. To gain an understanding of how a solid knowledge base in science could affect the outcome of artworks, students will study the art of pyrotechnics, paying particular attention to the chemical elements required to create colors in fireworks displays. This lesson culminates in the use of an online learning tool in which students create their own compositions for explosion events modeled after the work of Guo-Qiang and write artistic statements inspired by online materials.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze, describe, and demonstrate how factors of time and place (such as climate, resources, and technology) influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art.
  • Describe and place contemporary artworks by Cai Guo-Qiang in historical and cultural contexts.
  • Apply organizational principles (i.e., repetition, balance, contrast, etc.) in original works.
  • Analyze Cai Guo-Qiang's "explosion event" in relation to existing art genres.
  • Using an online interactive activity, communicate original ideas through the creation of a composition for their own "explosion event."
  • Contribute to class discussions based on individual reading of online resources.
  • Write artistic statements based on analysis of their own work.
  • Discuss how scientific ideas have been developed to solve human problems through technology Across diverse cultures.
  • Compare the use of creativity and imagination in artistic pursuits to the use of creativity and imagination in the field of science.
  • Discuss how technology has influenced artistic methods, genres, or processes.
  • Conduct a flame test experiment to understand that certain chemical elements and compounds have characteristic colors.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the concept of energy transfer.

Teaching Approach

  • Arts Integration
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Thematic

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with the principles of art, chemistry, fireworks and the work of Cai Guo-Qiang using the following sources:


  • Greenberg, Barbara R., and Dianne Patterson. Art in Chemistry; Chemistry in Art. Portsmouth, NH: Teacher Ideas Press, 1998.


Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students should have a general understanding of the principals of artistic composition (color, form, shape, space, timing, etc.)

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


Small Group Instruction


To conduct the activities in Step 2, you may wish to project images and videos from the Internet onto a screen or have students follow along in a computer lab.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Ask students how they would define art. Write these definitions on the board. Inform students that you will return to these definitions after looking at contemporary works of art.

2. Review the following organizational principles in visual art:

  • Repetition: refers to a way of combining design and composition elements in artworks so that the same elements are used over and over again.
  • Balance: the pleasing distribution of objects, colors, textures, and space on a design. A design may have symmetrical, asymmetrical, or radial balance.
  • Emphasis: refers to the part of a composition that catches a viewer's attention. If there is an area of emphasis in a work, the viewer's eye will focus first on this area, then take in the rest of the composition.
  • Contrast: a principle describing differences in texture, color, placement, shape, and line. Often, areas of contrast will determine areas of emphasis. For example, if there is only one colorful shape in a composition full of small, muted lines, the shape and the muted lines are in contrast, and the viewer's eye falls on the colorful shape.

If students are being introduced to these concepts for the first time, you may wish to explore the site, The Artist's Toolkit: Visual Elements and Principles, with students. The link to the Artist's Toolkit exists within the Resource Carousel. (See the links under "Visual Principles," specifically "Emphasis" (which also contains information about contrast), "Movement/Rhythm" (for information on repetition), and "Balance.")

3. Show students the traditional Chinese brush painting by artist Chu Ta (c. 1626-1705) on Art of the Explosion: Pyrotechnics & Fireworks (click on "Conceptualize," then "Influence & Inspiration." Tell students to divide a piece of paper into four quarters. On each section of the paper, have students write about how the composition employs the principles of repetition, balance, emphasis, and contrast, respectively. Then pair up students and have them discuss their findings with each other before discussing the composition as a class.

4. Start a discussion by asking students the following guiding questions:

  • What shapes are repeated throughout the work?
  • What is the area of emphasis in the composition?
  • Why are our eyes drawn to this area (i.e., contrast in textures of the detailed mountain top vs. the white space to the left of the mountain)?
  • Does Chu Ta employ symmetrical balance (elements are similar on both sides of the design), asymmetrical balance (elements are different but balance is still achieved), or radial balance (elements are arranged around a central point)?
  • How does white space create balance and contrast?

Build Knowledge

1. Tell students that contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced tsai gwoh-tsian) creates gunpowder drawings influenced by Chinese traditional painting. Show students gunpowder drawings Guo-Qiang created for his 2003 explosion event in New York, entitled Explosion Event: Light Cycle Over Central Park (go to the Projects section of Cai Guo-Qiang Web site, click on "2003," then scroll to the middle of the screen). Discuss with students how the drawings are different (i.e., Guo-Qiang's work is abstract) or similar (i.e., use of white space and sense of balance) to the traditional Chinese painting.

2. Explain to students that artists use different media or materials to create art. Paint, clay, bronze, and pencils are media that have been used in art for centuries. Inform students that Guo-Qiang uses the medium of gunpowder to create his drawings. Show students how he creates gunpowder drawings by viewing a video of Guo-Qiang making Red Flag: Drawings for Zacheta National Gallery of Art (2005) (see "A Courtship" in the "Why Gunpowder?" section).

3. Have students read the section, "Why Gunpowder?" (located in the "Conceptualize" section of Art of the Explosion). Discuss the history of gunpowder and note that it came into being as a form of medicine but evolved over time and across cultures into a material for combat.

4. Tell students that Guo-Qiang often creates gunpowder drawings in conjunction with his famous "explosion events," ephemeral works that incorporate pyrotechnic technologies. Show students the video of Tornado: Explosion Project for the Kennedy Center (see the "Ignite" section of Art of the Explosion). Ask students how Cai's explosion event differs from works commonly studied in art classrooms. How is it similar? Look at the digital renderings of the event (see "The Perfect State" in the "Collaborate" section) and discuss how balance, repetition, emphasis, and contrast are working in Tornado. Compare these digital renderings to the stills from the actual event (see "Program" in the "Ignite" section).

5. Have students read "Teamwork" and "An Explosion in the Capital?" in the "Collaborate" section of Fireworks: Art of the Explosion. Discuss the definitions of land art, ephemeral art, installation art, and performance art (see definitions in "An Explosion in the Capital?"). Ask students if they think Guo-Qiang’s art falls under one of these categories more strongly than another. For points of comparison, you may wish to introduce students to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, Christo and Jean-Claude's The Gates, and Suzanne Lacy's Skin of Memory: Barrio Antioquia, Past, Present, and Future.

6. Return to the students' definitions of art written on the blackboard. Ask students if they would like to add to or revise any of these definitions based on their discussions of Cai Guo-Qiang's work.

7. Explain to students that the creation of art is often reliant on advances in science. For example, photography exists as an art form only because cameras were invented. Ask students if they can think of other ways that technology has influenced artistic methods, genres, or processes (i.e., advances in the creation of paint would lead to different effects on the canvas, the use of video in installations, product innovations such as new bonding techniques in glues and new casting materials for sculpture, etc.)

8. Tell students that Guo-Qiang's work is also reliant on technology. For homework or during a computer lab session, students should read through Art of the Explosion in its entirety and jot down all the ways that science is employed in Guo-Qiang's works. In class the next day, discuss students' findings.

9. Have students click on "Create Your Own Fireworks" (located on the upper right-hand corner of the screen). Students should read through the "how it works?" section of the interactive, paying close attention to how color is created in fireworks displays. Walk students through the animation available about energy transfer in the "color" area of the interactive.

10. Reinforce the concept that chemical elements and compounds create colors by working with a science teacher and conducting a flame test with students in a science lab. Inform students that, just as each chemical element has characteristics such as a specific melting point and a particular atomic configuration, chemical compounds emit a characteristic color when exposed to heat.

11. Discuss how scientists, like artists, must use creativity and imagination to make advances in technology. Pyrotechnics must try different combinations of chemicals to create different colors and effects. Because a bright blue is the most difficult color to achieve, inform students that a bright blue firework is the mark of a talented and innovative scientist.


1. Tell students that although they cannot build and ignite their own explosion events, they can conceptualize and choreograph an event using the interactive activity on Art of the Explosion.

Have students practice using the interactive by replicating the rainbow shape that Guo-Qiang has used in several works-Transient Rainbow (2002), Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Edinburgh (2005) and Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Valencia (2005). Direct students to the image of Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Valencia for a model (located in the "Dancing Boats" section of "Vision" in the "Conceptualize" section of Art of the Explosion).

2. Once students have a feel for using the interactive, give them time to conceptualize their own explosion event. Remind students that they should give some serious thought to the shapes they create. If they choose to create a circle, for instance, why are they creating this shape? What does the symbol of the circle mean to them? What are they trying to communicate through their work? Students should re-read "The Vision" area of the "Conceptualize" section to find out how Cai Guo-Qiang came up with his concept for Tornado: Explosion Project for the Kennedy Center.

3. Students should also pay attention to the principles of organization when designing their explosion events. Their events must demonstrate their knowledge of repetition, balance, emphasis, and contrast.

As students choreograph their own explosion events, tell them to keep careful notes about which effects are successfully working so that they can recreate the event for the whole class later on. (Information on the interactive activity will not be saved once the web-browsing window is closed.)

4. Tell students that they will also be responsible for writing an artistic statement about their work. Using the "Influence & Inspiration" sub-section of Art of the Explosion (in the "Conceptualize" section) as a model, have students create a mock-up for their own "Influence & Inspiration" Web site. Students should pick four experiences, ideas, events, or people that have influenced and inspired their concept for an explosion event. Tell students that the goal in writing their artistic statements is to make others interested in their artwork. Encourage students to incorporate anecdotes and concrete examples of experiences, events, and/or people that have influenced their work.

5. Review a draft of students' artistic statements and comment on the students' use of transitions, sentence variety, grammar, and mechanics.


1. Have each student present the explosion events they created on the Art of the Explosion interactive activity. Students must also present their artistic statements that outline their influences and inspiration.


Assess the students' final projects based on the following criteria:

  • Demonstration of knowledge of organizational principles.
  • Creativity and evidence of thoughtful planning.
  • Successful use of technology to implement ideas.
  • Organization and preparedness in oral presentation.
  • Clarity of ideas in artistic statements.
  • Adherence to rules of grammar and mechanics in artistic statements.
  • Sophistication of writing (use of transitions, sentence variety, etc.)

Use the Assessment Rubric in the Resource Carousel to evaluate students' work.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Arts

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions

Language Arts Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Language Arts Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media



Theresa Sotto
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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