Fireworks Spectacle in the Forbidden City - VR Artwork by Chinese Artist Cai Quo-Qiang

Known for his aerial firework arts and gunpowder paintings, celebrated Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is putting before our eyes a daytime spectacle in the skyline above the Forbidden City, using virtual reality (VR).

The VR artwork, Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, is the artist’s first of its kind, also debuted as a part of Odyssey and Homecoming, his exhibition at the Palace Museum, Beijing, from now until February 5, 2021.


Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang with the VR headset on


Born in Fujian, China, now based in New York, Cai Guo-Qiang began detonating trails of gunpowder onto paper since the 1980s. The sky is the limit - Cai’s signature style is never bounded by canvases, but further developed as daytime ignition events. The world-famous artist also served as the creative brain behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

This time around, the Chinese capital sees a total of 180 artworks, including Cai’s first-ever VR artwork - Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, created in partnership with HTC VIVE Arts. Coinciding with the 600th anniversary of the founding of the Forbidden City, the event also kicks off the one-year countdown of the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing.

The Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City VR fireworks display by Liuyang River


Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City is installed in the final section of the exhibition and comprises three elements - a large-scale alabaster model of the Forbidden City, created in collaboration with craftsmen from the artist’s hometown, a richly layered gunpowder drawing, and a VR film, which brings all the elements together. 

The creation of the majestic model of the Forbidden City took the artist five months, from start to finish. Whereas the gunpowder drawing and the VR film incorporate 3D scanning and modeling, 360° filming, and CG technologies, to create a full-scale fireworks ceremony by the Liuyang River.


Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City, comprises a large-scale model of Forbidden City, a gunpowder drawing, and a VR film

The making of the alabaster model of the Forbidden City


Constructed in 1420, during the early Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City was the home of a total of 24 emperors. It is the best-preserved imperial palace in China, and the world’s largest ancient palatial structure. Putting on a fireworks display above such a significant site that holds tremendous historical value was never heard of.

But as one puts on the VR headset, they will be instantly transported to the dreamlike journey. The five-minute fireworks spectacle unfolds over four chapters, beginning with gold, silver, and red fireworks, which will ignite from all corners of the historic site. Moving from sparking strands of colored smoke to sunrise views over the City’s layered rooftops, the display will conclude with an explosive finale as the colored smoke and pigments dissipate and fall through the sky, transforming the viewer’s surroundings into a remarkable three-dimensional gunpowder painting.


Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City by Cai Guo-Qiang

“The daytime fireworks ceremony of Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City was inspired by the traditional principles of ‘round sky and square earth’ and Wuxing (the Five Elements). The work highlights traditional Chinese aesthetics and the bold spirit of ‘the world is mine’ felt within the Forbidden City, and expresses my thoughts while ‘sleepwalking’ back to that chapter of its history,” said Cai.

Growing up in Quanzhou, a major hub of firecrackers production in China, Cai once mentioned that he began experimenting with gunpowder arts since his early childhood experiences with firecrackers. One of his gunpowder artworks, Drawing for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation: Ode to Joy was sold for HK$74.2m (US$9.6m) in a Christie’s sale in 2007, marking a record-high for the artist and among any Chinese contemporary art pieces at the time. Offerings of his artworks at auctions, however, are becoming few and far between. So before one can acquire a permanent piece by the artist, a transient, but innovative experience would be nice too.


Drawing for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation: Ode to Joy, 2002, sold for HK$74.2m, Christie’s 2007

Cai Guo-Qiang

Exhibition Details:

Odyssey and Homecoming

Venue: The Palace Museum, Beijing

Dates: December 15, 2020 - February 5, 2021 

Time: 8:30am - 4:30pm (Last entry at 3:40pm)


Advanced booking required, with daily quotas of 3000 for the morning session and 2000 for the afternoon session.