An Explosion of Art
Visionary artist Cai Guo-Qiang is the sole practitioner in a field of artmaking that he invented himself.
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Many artists develop innovative styles, but few have pioneered an entirely new medium. One who can make that claim is Cai Guo-Qiang, the first visual artist to make gunpowder his primary means of expression. The Chinese artist, long based in New York, uses the explosive to make drawings and to produce outdoor pyrotechnic spectacles.
We tend to think of drawing as a serene activity, but making a drawing with gunpowder is anything but. Cai begins by sketching on a large sheet of paper or canvas on the floor. He adds segments of fuse and sprinkles granular explosives by hand, then lays down stencils, plants, or other items whose forms he wishes to record. He scatters more gunpowder to adjust the composition and assistants cover the entire set-up with cardboard weighted down to contain the ensuing combustion. Once everyone is clear, Cai ignites a fuse, steps back, and seconds later a hissing eruption rolls down the length of the drawing. Fire boils along the edges, acrid smoke fills the air, and his team races in to tamp down flames. The cardboard is removed and the artist surveys his creation — a ghostly image rendered with the residue of the thrilling blast.
Whereas the drawings are generally created behind closed doors, Cai’s open-air pyrotechnics are always public. Created in collaboration with fireworks companies according to his designs, these computer-controlled “explosion events” produce colorful abstract and figurative images and an array of percussive sounds. The crowd-pleasing aerial displays, engineered for night or daytime presentation, are frequently commissioned for public celebrations around the globe.
Many readers may not be aware that Cai directed visual effects at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For the opening he orchestrated fireworks forming 29 giant footprints (one for each modern Olympiad) that marched in sequence nine miles culminating at the National Olympic Stadium. His minute-long display was witnessed by more than 1.5 billion television viewers.
The image of giants striding through the heavens reflects Cai’s obsession with forces that transcend humanity’s concerns with materialism and politics. He believes that reveling in the mysterious powers of the cosmos can help put an end to earthly conflict, and that using gunpowder – the fuel of war – can provide a channel for the awesome beauty of those forces to emerge in his creative process.
“Project for Extraterrestrials”
In the 1990s he embarked on a series titled “Project for Extraterrestrials.” One sought to realize a ladder of flame reaching into the firmament. After several failed attempts he finally realized his vision in 2015, igniting a 1,650-foot rope ladder wrapped with fuse that blazed for several minutes held aloft by a balloon. (Sky Ladder was recorded in a feature-length biopic by director Kevin MacDonald.) Another memorable undertaking elongated the Great Wall of China with six miles of conjoined burning fuse. For centuries the 6,400-mile fortification demarcated the northwestern limits of the empire. Cai’s evanescent extension into the Gobi Desert resumed the nationalist campaign and at the same time demonstrated its futility.
Cai was part of the first generation of Chinese artists to gain prominence on the international stage, and unlike many who conformed to the prevailing taste of the Western market, he imbued his work with Asian concepts and materials. His ideas and iconography spring from Chinese mythology and history, Eastern philosophy and religions, Maoist revolutionary ideas, Chinese medicine and feng shui. He finds inspiration also in Western thought — particularly astrophysics and art history – and mingles the perspectives of East and West. His gunpowder drawings, for example, make use of a material invented in China, but often represent motifs familiar in the locale where he exhibits them: a eucalyptus tree in Queensland, a Botticelli in Florence, and for the American Embassy in Beijing an American eagle landing on a pine tree symbolic of Chinese tradition.
Aside from pyrotechnics, Cai also creates monumental sculptural installations. At the 1999 Venice Biennale he hired artisans to recreate Rent Collection Courtyard, a 1960s socialist realist sculpture of more than 100 life-size clay figures that portrays tenants exploited by a landlord in pre-Communist China. Cai’s recovery of the moralizing tableau, which had been reproduced and displayed all over Maoist China, examined the creative process and the fate of art made to serve political ideology. The project garnered the Biennale’s Golden Lion Prize.
The centerpiece of his 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York was a stunning coup de theatre that suspended nine identical automobiles from the roof of the rotunda, each bursting with rods of blinking colored LEDs. Positioned topsy-turvy in midair they suggested a time lapse of an exploding car, an image acutely resonant at a moment focused on the scourge of terrorism. A more tranquil piece made in 2013 for the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art positioned sculptures of 99 animals, predators and prey from around the world, drinking from the same watering hole – stand-ins for the artist’s vision of social harmony on earth.
From Mao to Manhattan
Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced TSAI gwo-CHIANG) was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, a coastal city in Fujian Province in Southeastern China. His father Cai Ruiqin, an amateur ink painter and calligrapher, managed a state-run book shop. The eldest of four children, Cai practiced traditional Chinese painting and belonged to troupes that produced art and cultural propaganda promoting Maoism. As a student at the Shanghai Theater Academy(1981-1985) he worked in stage design and turned from traditional Chinese art to Western forms, including oil painting. Intent on developing his own innovative approach, he experimented with new techniques and began making images with burning gunpowder. In 1986, with help from an acquaintance who worked in the Forbidden City, he emigrated to Japan where he remained until 1995. During this period he established his reputation with large-scale “explosion events” that led to numerous museum exhibitions in Japan and Europe. In 1995 he relocated to New York where he continues to live and work.
In the past several decades, Cai has been the subject of scores of exhibitions. In 2002 he had a solo show in the Chinese state-run Shanghai Art Museum. The Guggenheim retrospective, the museum’s first devoted to a Chinese artist, traveled to the National Museum of China in Beijing and the Guggenheim Bilbao. His rooftop exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013 was the museum’s first solo show by a living Chinese artist. Other major institutions that have hosted his site-specific installations and explosion events include MoMA in New York, the Tate in London, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar.
His newest works respond to masterpieces of Western art and have been presented in the Pushkin in Moscow, the Prado in Madrid, and the Uffizi in Florence. The 2017 Prado show included gunpowder drawings in homage El Greco, one of his favorite artists. Last year’s Florence show featured a 15-minute spectacle of 50,000 fireworks, many of them flower-shaped and inspired by Botticelli’s La Primavera. For an exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (through May 20) he conducted an explosion event in the amphitheater at Pompeii to echo the ancient city’s volcanic destruction. Next on his busy calendar, Cai will act as curator as one of six artists chosen by the Guggenheim to select works for “Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection” (May 24, 2019–Jan. 12, 2020).
Cai’s myriad activities have earned him numerous awards, including the Praemium Imperiale and the Hiroshima Art Prize. But for all his success, he is not a major presence in the market. Large gunpowder drawing have topped $1 million on the rare occasions when they come up for auction, and multiple-drawing sets have sold for $9.5 million, but he eschews the gallery system, preferring to sell directly to museums and collectors. His base of operations is a multi-story studio in a former school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, recently redesigned by the architecture firm OMA. He and his wife, Hong Hong Wu, also spend time with their two daughters on a farm in New Jersey where he maintains a second studio and commissioned a house designed by Frank Gehry.
At his New York studio, assisted by an interpreter – Cai has never mastered English — we spoke with the artist about growing up in Communist China, his belief in “the unseen world,” what led him to adopt gunpowder as a medium, and the complexities of creating large-scale explosion events.
Jason Edward Kaufman: How exactly did you start using gunpowder? After all, you were a painter.
Cai Guo-Qiang: I started working with gunpowder in my art after 1984. I had already been thinking about how to develop a unique approach in my art. In 1978, when I was around 20, I went to Shanghai to see an exhibition of 19th-century French painting. It was the first exhibition of original Western painting in China, and my first exposure to oil paintings by non-Chinese painters. Before then I was influenced by Soviet painters who had taught in China, but had never seen any of their originals.
That Shanghai exhibition featured paintings from a variety of schools — the realism of Courbet, Corot, Cézanne, Impressionism, Fauvism. It was an eye-opening experience and it prompted me to think that as an artist you have to find your own unique medium and voice. I began to have a strong desire to pursue an individual and personal artistic path. Chairman Mao had a slogan that there is every reason to rebel and disrupt, but I knew that China was a society that controlled everything, and I needed something that could help me break away from that control.
Did you actually link artistic revolution to escaping the authoritarian control of the Chinese state?
It was not a special thing. I believe many of my artist peers, including Xu Bing, must also have looked for a free and unique voice in that society. I was aware that lots of artists — for example, the members of The Stars Art Group — were in pursuit of freedom in society. But I was pursuing personal freedom because since my childhood I always believed that only when individuals can achieve their freedom can society achieve real freedom.
How did that lead you to make art with a destructive material devised for war?
I already had been thinking a lot about creation and destruction — Mao’s slogan, “No destruction, no construction.” I was using fire to burn my oil paintings, trying to be experimental, but this was still exerting control. I was thinking that the firecrackers that I was surrounded with in my hometown could be a very handy medium for me.
Was your use of gunpowder influenced by the exploration of new materials by contemporary artists in the West and in Japan?
In China I wasn’t influenced by them, but after arriving in Japan I had access to modern art. Japanese artists were always debating whether we should be more insistent on our Eastern traditions — Asian philosophy, calligraphy and even the art of flowers — or more closely follow Dadaism and Pop art from the West. They were aware that Conceptual art was emerging in California, but they were concerned that the past century of development in Japan had simply been the result of Westernization. They were oscillating between East and West, but I was considering a larger scale that could incorporate both, and more importantly surpass the dual relationship. That is when I started my series “Projects for Extraterrestrials.”
Making pictures with burning gunpowder is one thing, but how did you decide that the outdoor pyrotechnics of those projects could function as artwork?
I felt that to be seen from an extraterrestrial perspective you should create something big enough and outdoors for them to see. I first had the idea in the early 1990s of creating a flaming sky ladder to reach extraterrestrials, and also to reach the universe. Though my dialogue with the universe is easily interpreted as a dialogue with aliens, rather it’s more with an eternal force, the unseen world.
Do you believe extraterrestrials are watching us?
I believe that there must be various living beings in the universe. I don’t have specific ideas about any UFOs or alien beings, but I believe in the unseen world that exists in the cosmos. We know that 95% of the universe is accounted for by dark energy and dark matter. For art and for humanity, and for my own so-called politics, this is a meaningful thing. I feel it is meaningful and necessary for mankind to be aware that there are eyes out there in the universe looking at us, just as it is for a country to constantly know that there are other countries out there looking at you.
How are your “explosion events” different from fireworks?
Actually, I never was a big fan of fireworks. I like the explosion and the energy, but they are always the same for me: boom, boom, boom! In the beginning I worked only with black gunpowder to realize what I call “explosion events.” I produced a variety of explosions – above a river, in the sky, on the façade of a building, even exploding all the window panes on the façade of an abandoned power plant in Johannesburg. Later I did realize some fireworks events, sometimes as artworks and sometimes not exactly as artworks. For the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, for example, I helped realize many fireworks, including celebratory fireworks above the Bird’s Nest stadium. But the big footprints exploding across the Beijing sky were artworks. I first came up with the idea to realize giant footprints walking in the sky in 1989, as part of my “Project for Extraterrestrials.” I imagined giants in the universe who could disregard the international borders invented by mankind. The night that the giant footprints appeared above the city of Beijing, I turned part of a national ceremony into a platform for my own artwork. It was an artwork for the country, and also an artwork for myself.
You live in New York, but you are considered an exemplar of Chinese contemporary art, and in a way an ambassador for China itself. Do you embrace that role?
I never felt that way. I don’t think of myself as a representative of China and I don’t want Chinese people to think of me as their representative. If I succeed in what I am doing it’s good for my country and for Chinese people, but if I were representative of China and its people and I were to fail, it would be a very problematic thing. Once I was asked if I think of myself as a Chinese artist, a contemporary Chinese artist, an Asian artist, a contemporary artist, or an American artist. My answer to each question was, “Yes.” My recent works are part of a project about my individual journey through art history. I am undertaking that journey because I regard all of mankind as my ancestors.
GROWING UP IN MAO’S CHINA
Why did you want to become an artist?
Because art seemed to be the only thing that I was extremely good at in my youth. I was not interested in anything else. I also played the violin, wrote poetry, and practiced kung fu martial arts back then. Every day after I woke up I would go run on the streets that surround the city. Back from that run I would clean myself with well water and then start reading. Later I would play the violin and then paint and draw, and after lunch I would write or paint more. At dusk I would lift weights, and at night I would head out with friends and go to the school plaza to practice kung fu. I am not too different from what I was in my youth. I rarely cook or do any laundry or buy anything from the stores, and I still keep pet fish at home. My wife has known me for over 40 years – we met when she was 17 — and she can attest to the fact that I haven’t changed much.
Of all the things to do in Communist China, making art must have been a challenging career choice.
There already were lots of artists in China. They were social realists who functioned like publicity specialists in every field, writing and making posters. But they were actually artists. And because there weren’t many forms of recreation, lots of people ended up interested in painting and calligraphy or poetry. My father, for example, practiced traditional ink painting and calligraphy. My hometown was more on the conservative side, but I was a bit different because I had a pioneering spirit, more avant-garde.
Did your parents think you should pursue a different career?
I always occupied myself with enjoyable things to do, so I suppose they thought that I was very unique and they didn’t need to worry too much about me. They let me have a huge studio in our house. My parents and siblings made do with sleeping in several small rooms while I took up two large rooms to make a big studio.
Your father was a devoted Maoist. How did he influence your thinking?
My father was a Communist Party member, and he was very cautious and very loyal. On special Buddhist occasions, like when we commemorated my deceased grandfather, my grandmother and my mother would prepare food offerings. My father would not participate in those rituals and never ate those offerings because he was a firm believer in the Party. But at the same time, he nurtured me to be sensitive to politics. As a child, I often drew portraits of Chairman Mao, and my father would tell me, “Cai, you should not draw portraits of Chairman Mao like this. It will be a problem.” I would say, “It’s a very good portrait, just like Chairman Mao,” but he explained, “You cannot see the difference, but it is not like Chairman Mao and you may get caught.”
He managed a state-controlled bookstore. Was the shop an important part of your upbringing?
I grew up sitting on the little stool behind the counter. Almost every day after class I would go there, so I had the opportunity to read more than my peers. More importantly, my father was also in charge of the kinds of books that could be read only by members of the Party’s inner circles. The Chinese called them “White Cover Books.” They included the latest developments in foreign literature — Japanese, American and European writers, Nobel Literature Prize winners, books about ideas such as Existentialism, the Absurd, and so on. I remember Sartre, Death of a Salesman, and Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland which centers around stories of Beethoven. They were accessible only to senior level officials in translations that included critical introductions written by various research institutes in China. I got to read the rest of the books, too. They exposed me not only to literature, but to perspectives on humanity and politics. I read about hardship in the lives of peasants and workers, and also the romantic side of their lives and their freedom.
Did your father allow you to read them?
He did. Once they arrived he was supposed to deliver them to the mayor’s office, but before delivering them he would bring them home after work. He made covers with newspaper or butcher paper to help preserve the books in case I might tarnish them. And I had to finish reading them within a day or two before he delivered them to the mayor, so I had to read fast.
He was a very cautious person, but what he did opened a window for me to another world. I also eavesdropped on radio stations of the Soviet Union and the so-called “enemies” including Voice of America, and stations in Taiwan, Central Europe, and even Japan. I can still vividly remember the beautiful voice of the Taiwanese radio hostess. I had just a small radio and had to very patiently search for that channel because there was a lot of disruption. Less than a kilometer from my house were huge signal towers intended to disrupt the signals from our “enemy countries.”
What else do you recall from that period?
My father had a bicycle to deliver the books. A bicycle was a luxury good in my hometown during my childhood. He pulled a book cart behind the bicycle and I sometimes rode on it. I remember on a long ride seeing a huge relief of Chairman Mao’s head that the Chinese military had begun carving into the side of a mountain in the outskirts of Quanzhou. They began in 1967 and several soldiers fell and died before the project was halted. They realized that birds were defecating on the carving — and that was not a good thing for Chairman Mao! — and the mountain was part of a military base that had been excavated to build missile silos. The carving served as a target for Taiwan to attack, so they left it unfinished. But the shallow carving still remains on the cliff, and in the sunshine you can clearly see the head of Chairman Mao. In a sense, it is a shadow of history.
That carving of Chairman Mao was like Land Art, and the experience allowed me to see the appeal of a large-scale artwork installation. Two years ago I had my solo exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Before the exhibition I climbed up the mountain and covered the carving with a 50 x 32-meter tarpaulin canvas, and using ink I made a rubbing. Through that act I was tracing my memory of childhood, my father, and of socialist China and Chairman Mao.
Your father was loyal to the Party, but he also was an artist and intellectual who collected books. It must have been painful when he became a target of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution.
He was very afraid. During the day you could often hear the strike of the gong, which meant there was a procession, a riot on the streets, and people would shout that we are criticizing this or that person. In the beginning he was one of those who criticized others. The staff in the bookstore had been revolutionary leaders in Shandong and Shanxi, and he had to travel to those cities to make sure they really had a clean background. But they were later exonerated and my father was afraid that now they would seek revenge. It was a very complicated political conflict between different factions. When he was targeted he had to burn his collection of books. He was afraid that smoke coming out of the chimney would attract suspicion during the day, so he burned the books overnight. I helped tear them up. It was not easy to burn whole books. Simply throwing them into the fire took a very long time.
Why do you think he became a target?
My father always tried to be very low key and modest and actively participated in the revolution. But he was born with a problematic background. His grandfather was a gunsmith who used to manufacture guns for the Communist Party, the National Party and also the mafias. Just after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Communist Party sentenced one of his sons to death and another was killed in secrecy by the Party. My father never told me about that part of the family history, but I read about it on a form that Party members had to fill out detailing their background and their ancestors. When I saw that my father mentioned that two of his uncles were killed, it was very scary.
The other side of my family was from a typical lower class, which was deemed at the time very favorable. My grandmother was very self-confident and her strong character and spiritual beliefs impressed me. She was a Buddhist, a Taoist, and at one point believed in Christianity, as well. I share her belief and her longing for the unseen world, a concept that relates to feng shui and qi, the invisible energy of the universe and the energy of your own body. Gunpowder, the medium that I use, is related to this context. It activates an unseen energy, and every time you use it you face your own fate. I don’t mean I might be blown up, but using gunpowder makes it hard to anticipate the result of your work, so something is left to fate. My uses of gunpowder are related to my values about life.
LAUNCHING A CAREER ABROAD
Your career took off while you were living in Japan. What was the breakthrough moment?
It must be my solo exhibition in P3 Alternative Museum in Tokyo in 1991. It was titled “Primeval Fireball,” and included an installation of paintings and gunpowder drawings on folding screens. Those drawings represented my attempted or realized “Projects for Extraterrestrials.” I never expected that my approach would become so popular, but people saw new values and a new outlook about the universe in my art. I became well established with many museum exhibitions and gradually I became a modest star, often doing interviews and appearing on television talking with scientists and people from all walks of life. Artists like Lee U Fan and Kazuo Shiraga were fond of me and keen to exchange artworks.
Why did you leave to go to the US?
While I was in Japan I had lots of exhibitions in Europe, and the curators constantly talked about what was happening in New York. If they were organizing an exhibition they had to first visit New York to look up certain artists. I felt that I had to live in the West for at least some time, and if I had to choose a Western city, New York would be the best. I applied to Asia Cultural Council for a Japanese-American exchange fellowship and was turned down because I was not Japanese. I applied again after the exhibition at P3 and other major shows in Japan, and they approved me because I could be considered a representative from Japan. One of my first trips when I arrived was to the nuclear test site in Nevada where I realized a small mushroom-cloud explosion with gunpowder. The scale of destruction is, of course, very different, but there are similarities that relate to my work. With the destructive force of the atomic bomb, humankind for the first time in history faced the question of what shall they do with the fate of their own destiny.
How are your explosion events different from gunpowder drawings?
Creating paintings with gunpowder is more like lovemaking in bed. Outdoor explosion events are more like a revolution. They are more connected to the conflicts and turmoil that I witnessed in my childhood, the kind of revolution that the public participates in. At the same time, the explosion events are channeled to the time and space of the universe, a scale as expansive as that. The explosion event enables a dialogue on that large scale, and a dialogue with the universe on that higher and larger scale helps me to realize that higher-dimension realm in my painting or gunpowder drawing.
HOW TO MAKE AN EXPLOSION EVENT
What are your latest developments in terms of technique?
I have been creating new work by igniting blue gunpowder on a mirror. At first, no matter how much gunpowder I sprinkled on the surface, it wouldn’t explode. Usually I can ignite the gunpowder with only an incense stick, but even with a blowtorch it wouldn’t explode. It would just sizzle. Eventually I decided to place another glass on top of the mirror covering the blue gunpowder, letting the two sheets press against each other. This resulted in a huge explosion. It was a completely surprising result. Gunpowder is quite a character.
You have organized massive explosion events all over the world. The early ones were mostly clouds of black smoke, but now you create footprints, flowers, letters and other images in various colors. How have you refined your technique?
To create anything like that in a public space, you face problems like safety and the security of the public and the city. You need to get a permit and I am not a licensed professional for using gunpowder. I need to first identify a company with a pyrotechnical license who can get the permit for me and provide the materials and import fireworks. These various partners also help me set up the products on site, and operate the computer system, strictly according to my design. Most of the time the companies already have their own system, but sometimes they will develop one just to realize my project. They might have to customize the system to generate a faster speed of explosions, or invent products that have computer chips inserted to control the exact location and timing of the explosions in the sky. For celebratory fireworks they wouldn’t need precise location and timing controls, but I arrange the shells to form a shape. Each shell has to know the millisecond it explodes in order to form, say, a letter “A” in the sky. Sometimes I also rely on scientists outside the company to realize particularly challenging issues. But the day of the realization of the explosion event, generally I just press a button.
Can you simply tell them you want a red letter “A” at a particular height, or hand them a drawing of colorful flowers and have them set up fireworks to create it?
They can realize about 70 percent of my desired effects. When I first draw my vision for the project, I have already considered realistically their capacity, but still 30% of my requests cannot be realized. They always do many tests in the countryside and send me videos and I give them feedback to adjust. Often in the beginning they tell me that what I want is not possible, and I tell them it is feasible and draw sketches to show how it can be done. For example, when I ask them to find a way to explode a straight vertical line, they always told me they could only form a horizontal line. I explained that with computer technology you could realize a line from ground to sky. That technology has helped them realize really interesting fireworks. It has made some companies a fortune in Saudi Arabia and other rich countries where they create events for the royals.
Your explosion events involve not only images, but sounds that unfold over time. Do you compose them as a musician might approach creating a piece of music?
My sketches are like the scores of a musical composition. I provide a score for the fireworks company to perform. I explain which products should launch every second. I even specify the sounds and when they will happen. There are existing products that produce certain sounds. They are my references for telling the producers the kind of sounds I want. And I am very good at mimicking the sounds I want. [He demonstrates by making rumbling, crackling, whining, whistling and spinning sounds that accurately evoke familiar fireworks.] So even if they do not have a product yet, they can try to produce something close to what I need. They program it into the system, and the final event will be according to my sketches.
The explosion events are ephemeral and they take place only once. You can record them in a film or drawing, but that is not the same as the actual event. Do you have documentation sufficient to recreate them, and would you allow repeat performances?
In the beginning I did not care that much about documentation of these projects because I thought of them as mostly for extraterrestrials. Let’s just allow the light to travel into the universe! As I received more and more support and was hosted by more institutions, many people contributed to the realization of these projects, and naturally we ended up having a lot of documentation, from film to photographs and coverage by media. I would say that now the projects are well documented.
Would you allow them to be replicated, even if you are no longer alive?
Yes, of course, if they want to. They could definitely reproduce the exploded footprints or Sky Ladder. They could reproduce Sky Ladder to celebrate my 100th birthday, just as I did for my 100-year-old grandmother. As long as they feel it is a worthy and interesting thing to do.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
A version of this article appeared in Luxury Magazine, Spring 2019, pp. 190-201.