Ready to Explode! Chinese Firecracker Art by James McNulty

January 25 – March 2, 1997

This exhibition of the artist James McNulty was organized by the Chinese Culture Center with the purpose of reevaluating the history of the gunpowder, a Chinese invention, which this artist explores in his collages made with the wrappings of the Chinese fireworks. We have also thought relevant to exhibit this work a few days before the arrival of Chinese new year (February 7, 1997) since its celebrational spirit could not be more appropriate for the festivity.

Between scholars, there is a divergence of opinion concerning the place of discovery of the gunpowder. Some attribute its origins to the West (Europe and the Arabian world), and others who are the majority, attribute it to China. The first reference to the saltpeter (essential component of the gunpowder) was made by an Arabian author called Abd Allah in the thirteenth century who referred to the saltpeter as the “Chinese snow.” However, when it was exactly discovered is still unknown. Most scholars agree that gunpowder was probably first discovered in China in ancient times. And that according to Chinese belief, the loud explosion it created, was perfect for frightening off spirits, celebrating weddings, battle victories, and eclipses of the moon. But the Chinese did not use gunpowder as a propellant, or in other words, for cannons at the early stage of discovery. Scholars see greater probability that gunpowder was perfected in the West by the Arabs or by a German monk named Berthold Schwarz (the powder monk). This adaptation of gunpowder into rocketry was reintroduced right away in China probably sometime in the fifteenth century.

James McNulty, a self-taught artist from Nevada, stands nowadays as a prominent figure of the almost unknown fireworks or firecracker art. He has chosen the form of the collage in order to emulate the fireworks experience, but instead of using traditional materials such as newspaper pieces or scrap paper, he has preferred the use of firecracker wrappers. Thus, by using the fireworks medium par excellence, he has made a very powerful and direct statement of the purposes of his work. The wrappings have been placed all along the surface of the board creating landscapes (they allow a surprising degree of naturalism) that include topics such as the representation of Gulf War and the Chinese year of the Dragon.

His collages, brimming with a sense of naivet revealed through the rich variety of colors and textures of the firecracker wrappers, serve to remind us of the repercussion of the discovery of gunpowder in world history. They demand for a revision of this Chinese discovery before a potentially and always possible destruction of the world takes place. This tension (specially manifested in the apocalyptic Gulf War) that exists between the pleasing aesthetics of this medium and the inherent destructive qualities it has, is the key element for understanding his art.

The most striking quality of these collages at first is the richness of the colors (evoking the Fauvist paintings) to the point that they suggest visual noise, but not with an attempt of creating scientifically a harmonious composition of sounds, but rather a cacophony. The originality of his art culminates at the point where the artist himself declared to have “inadvertently invented the realm of fireworks art display and design.”

This project is funded in part by the Publicity and Advertising Fund’s Hotel Tax/Grants for the Arts Program and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.