Glass exclusive – we speak to the illuminating artist Cai Guo-Qiang

Explosions in the Sky – How illuminating artist Cai Guo-Qiang is bridging the gap between China and the Middle East

CAI Guo-Qiang’s art has always been successful at drawing attention. His largest audience to date has been around the one billion mark, and if you watched his “fireworks sculpture” at the 2008 Summer Olympics – whether in person, online or on TV – you would have made up a part of that “crowd”. As Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the world’s most famous sports event, Guo-Qiang fired 20 giant footprint fireworks through the Beijing skyline, travelling a distance of 15 kilometres in 63 seconds.

The artist, who was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, China, and studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in the early ‘80s, attracted widespread interest with his first major work, inaugurated in 1989, entitled Projects for Extraterrestrials (1989-2002). These initiatives used gunpowder and fireworks as part of site-specific, temporal installations that conveyed social and political statements. The project cemented the artist’s preoccupation with establishing an exchange between viewers and the larger world surrounding them, through employing a site-specific approach to culture and history.

Other firework spectacles orchestrated over the past two decades have included Life is a milonga: Tango fireworks for Argentina (2015), where the artist interpreted the movements of the renowned Latin American dance, and Sky Ladder (2015), which involved a flaming “ladder” ascending 500 metres off a small island in his hometown (a project Guo-Qiang had attempted to pull off three times previously in the past 20 years, and one which he dedicated to his family when it was finally realised).

Explosions in the skyHomeland, gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as an eight-panel screen, 2013.
Photograph: Justin Jin. Courtesy Cai Studio

As well as these firework productions, Guo-Qiang’s drawings, paintings and video works have formed a central part of his practice. These works have especially highlighted the multiple source materials utilised by the artist, such as Chinese medicine and philosophy, images of dragons and tigers, roller coasters and computers.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York celebrated Guo-Qiang’s work in 2008 with a retrospective entitled I Want To Believe, which also marked the first time the museum had offered a solo presentation to a Chinese-born artist. In 2012, Guo-Qiang was chosen as one of five Laureates for the Praemium Imperiale, an award that recognises lifetime achievement in the arts. In the past year he has held solo exhibitions at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama; Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokamachi; and Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan.

Explosions in the skyFootprints of History. Fireworks Project for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

I’m interested in the first big journey of your career – your move to Japan in 1986. You stayed there for nearly nine years, and this is when you began to explore the properties of gunpowder.
I actually first started using gunpowder in 1984, while in China. Back then I broke firecrackers and used the gunpowder from inside them on canvas, which sometimes I first painted with oil paint. I also shot mini rockets, a common type of toy firework, onto canvas. When I was growing up, fireworks were prevalent and easily obtainable in my hometown Quanzhou, where they accompanied every special occasion, whether happy or mournful. At the same time, living right across the Taiwan Strait, I remembered from childhood the noise of bombers flying to and back from Taiwan.

What was it about Japan that made you want to continue exploring the material?
After I arrived in Japan, I just began to pursue the materiality and expressions of gunpowder more purely, and started experimenting with a variety of gunpowder and firework products that were available, using these substances within my drawings. It was also in Japan, since 1989, that I started conducting outdoor explosion events. These large-scale explosion events, which I am still exploring today, led me to the international art world.

You then moved to New York, where you have lived ever since.
I became a somewhat known artist while working and living in Japan and first came to the U.S. in 1995 on an Asian Cultural Council Grant to participate in MoMA P.S.1’s National and International Studio Program. That one-year programme generated many more exhibition invitations and I consequently stayed.

Explosions in the skyTransient Rainbow realised over the East River, New York, June 29, 2002

What do you like about the city?
To me, the most interesting thing about New York, which I often compare to the world’s central square, is how easy it is to bump into people I know. Those whom you once worked with in a faraway place will come and knock on your studio door one day, unexpectedly. Slowly, I also came to realise that no matter what you’ve accomplished and where you’ve been – whether you are a Nobel Prize winner or a Hollywood celebrity – after you arrive in New York you are just like everybody else who has dreams and a private life. This is the power of New York; it turns anybody into an ordinary person.

The terrorist attack 9/11 impacted your work significantly. You have said that this situation encouraged you to start producing gunpowder events during the daytime, instead of only at night as you had previously been doing. Can you explain this influence, if it can be called that?
The attack made me realise that night-time fireworks have a limitation. At night, everything looks very beautiful and perfect. The city doesn’t even look real. But by day, under the sun, you can see that the city truly exists, with all the people going to work just as normal. But then, an explosion happens. This made a very deep impression on me.

You’ve also commented that your long-time use of animal imagery in your art was altered after these events, when you began to introduce more “ferocious” creatures, such as tigers and wolves.
In my work I use animals to express the feelings and problems of human beings. Before 9/11, I mainly portrayed “mild” animals: turtles and birds. After 9/11, I naturally turned towards crocodiles, tigers and wolves.

So how would you describe your live gunpowder events, in terms of their intention or atmosphere? Are they performances?
I often need the help of tens and sometimes hundreds of volunteers to make gunpowder drawings. It’s a fact that the live production of my gunpowder drawings is quite spectacular. However, I’ve never thought of what I am doing as performance. When we consider ourselves performing, we plan according to prearranged content. While creating the drawings, I adhere to spontaneity, while also needing to rest, to use the bathroom, or to lie down in order to recuperate my mind. Therefore, it’s not a performance. From early on, I decided to call it an “open production” in which the artist makes his working process public for people to enjoy.

But do you agree that these productions are celebratory in nature, given that they use spectacle at their core?
I think there are two reasons why the production process is such a visual spectacle: one is that gunpowder is dangerous, and the other is the ritualistic quality of fire. As gunpowder is ignited, the loud explosion shakes the earth and the sky. At the same time, the fire lights up the environment, transforming the invisible to the visible. In my art, however, gunpowder and fireworks are not always celebratory.

Works such as Black Fireworks: Project for Hiroshima (2008) and Elegy: Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave (2014) demonstrate this. I will be creating a daytime explosion event this summer in Iwaki, Fukushima, in memory of the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster that happened five years ago.

You recently curated the exhibition What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China which was presented by Qatar Museums at the QM Gallery Al Riwaq in Doha. The show has been considered a focal point of the Qatar-China 2016 Year of Culture. Was this your first experience of curating?
Actually, it’s a little-known fact that I have curated many times before! Aside from curating the first China Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, I have developed a series of projects in which I serve as both museum director and exhibition curator, presenting works by other artists as well as non-artists. These projects include the Everything is Museum series (since 2000), in which I convert some unexpected spaces – such as military bunkers and old kilns – in Italy, Japan, Taiwan and Cuba into small-scale exhibition venues for rural communities and small towns.

Explosions in the skyInstallation view of Seasons of Life, Yokahama Museum of Art, 2015

What does the exhibition explore?
It is an exhibition of Chinese art that is not about China. Instead it is focused on the art and the state of creativity, in terms of the individual attitudes, concepts, forms and methodologies that artists use to express themselves. The world has had a sustained interest in Chinese contemporary art, but often focusing on its socio-political content or commercial success.

However, as China is building thousands of museums every year, and as contemporary Chinese art’s auction results break records, all of this superficial phenomenon reveals a lack of individual creativity. This exhibition attempts to shift the attention back to artists’ individual exploration and expression, the journeys that every artist takes in developing their practices, and their pursuit of a unique artistic language.

Why do you think it has been so hard for audiences, particularly those from outside China, to seek more nuanced ways to interpret Chinese art?
First of all, it is difficult to talk about art directly. Since the 1980s the art world has been more aware of globalism and diversity. For non-Western artists to be understood by Western critics and audiences, more needed to be known about their cultural and social background. As a result, a lot of efforts were made in introducing the artist’s biographical information and the content of their artwork. Slowly, people were captured by these narratives and lost focus on the artworks themselves. On the other hand, China’s political and social systems have maintained some of these narratives; the world’s expectation of Chinese artists relies on them being the voice for political issues, and they have been good at responding to this demand.

More recently, the auction market has been setting record after record. Often talked about in relation to China’s expanding economic power, contemporary Chinese art has once again become a centre of attention. I also think that, fundamentally, people of our generation don’t believe in the creativity of contemporary art any more, thinking that everything has been done! Many curators and critics also hold this view, which leads to a lack of ambition. And in this context, it almost appears uncool these days to discuss serious issues in art history. It is too heavy a topic! But there are still many people of our generation who are trying.

Explosions in the skyThe Ninth Wave sailing on the Huangpu River by the Bund, Shanghai, 2014

Your exhibition is helping to raise the bar, and being the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art that has ever been presented in the Middle East is a pretty considerable feat in itself.
Yes. In 2011, I spent about 50 days in Doha preparing for my solo exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab at Mathaf – the Arab Museum of Modern Art, and I worked closely with local communities, from elementary school children to young artists. Moved by this interaction, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa invited me to come back to realise another project. Since another solo exhibition would not be possible, the idea of having me curate a group exhibition of contemporary Chinese art came up in our discussions.

What was your process for selecting the 15 artists within the exhibition?
The exhibition took nearly three years to curate. I developed the curatorial theme after working with my studio to extensively research contemporary Chinese art from the past few years. Afterwards we reviewed about 200 artists. In selecting these artists I of course compared them to Western contemporaries and thought about the Chinese cultural foundation of their work.

But, more importantly, I thought about how unique the artist’s language was – their spirit of exploration, attention to materials and process, and development of self-reflection. The subjects they are invested in range from socio-political issues to private life. Artists should care about their society, and their art can represent the social and political problems, but, in my mind, the central issue in art is not of content, but of the mode of expression.

So then, after conducting studio visits with about 25 artists, the final 15 were picked as an acknowledgement of their constant and continuous exploration of creativity.

Did you develop a sense of the art scene in Doha as you worked with the museum on this exhibition? What role is being played by the Qatar Museums?
From my understanding, Qatar Museum’s vision is to bring the best and most energetic artists to dialogue with this country’s culture. Exhibition spaces, including the Mathaf – where I had my solo exhibition, provide a great opportunity for international and local artists to share a platform, express themselves and have a conversation. Through these platforms, young Arab artists will also start to participate on the global stage. I believe this will help the younger generation in the Arab world, including Qatar, reflect on their own heritage while actively looking outward into the world.

What seems more important to me is that the momentum is not generated by the hustle and bustle of commercial art fairs, but a series of quality exhibitions, cultural exchange programmes and symposia planned one after another, with the intention to initiate a meaningful, in-depth, and sustainable conversation with the rest of the world.

What effect do you hope the exhibition will have had within the local region as well as internationally across the sector?
I hope that addressing this topic in Doha will provide inspiration to, and find resonance with, young Arab artists seeking the creative means to address the relationship of Islamic culture with the rest of the world. Moreover, the big contemporary exhibitions and biennials often focus on popular controversies: the environment, refugees, terrorism, the cultural identity of the artist and other textual and contextual analyses outside of the works themselves, with insufficient attention to the artists and art practice in themselves. So, the question raised by our exhibition is also one for the contemporary art world in general to address.

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue 26 –Longevity

Cai Guo-Qiang’s film Sky Ladder, a Netflix Original Documentary, launches on Netflix today,  October 14


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