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Jan 16, 2009

After dazzling the art world and the Beijing Olympics, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang just wants some quiet time.

By Anna-Katarina Gravgaard

When Cai Guo-Qiang’s 90-year-old grandmother asks about his work, he downplays his success.
“She will ask: ‘Oh, how much is it worth now? Is it a hundred? Is it a thousand?’ and she will go up to a hundred thousand, the largest number that she can grasp. So, I say: ‘Yes it is about a hundred thousand.’ And she’ll be happy.” The truth is that his work set an auction record for contemporary Chinese art in November 2007, when 14 of his gunpowder drawings sold for $9.5 million.

In China, Cai is most widely known for orchestrating spectacular firework exhibits, most memorably at the 2001 Asian summit and last summer’s Olympic Games. Watch a video here of one of Cai’s firework installations.

Around the world, his motifs—gunpowder, wolfs, boats and dragons—now represent something definitively Chinese to Westerners, and Chinese officialdom loves him for it. And, while Cai (his full name is pronounced “tsai gwo cheeyang”) has come to terms with being labeled as a Chinese artist, his work and background suggest a juxtaposition of Chinese themes and Western discourse, which is more readily accepted in the West than in the East.
Alexandra Munroe, who curated his highly acclaimed 2008 solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, calls him a “globalization era artist.” She insists that his art—whether it is his massive installations, elegant gunpowder drawings or ephemeral events with explosives—draws on sources from the places in which he has lived: China, Japan and America.

In FLYP Media’s exclusive video interview, Cai discusses topics ranging from the Cultural Revolution to the symbolism in his art.


In the early 1980s, Cai left his hometown of Quanzhou to study stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute. “Stage design is not a traditional Chinese discipline,” according to Stanford University’s Hsingyuan Tsao. She thinks that Cai’s unusual educational background made him more visually appealing to a wider audience than traditional Chinese artists.
His use of gunpowder in his art has added to his appeal. In 1993, he and a band of volunteers used 1,300 pounds of gunpowder to extend the Great Wall of China, at least briefly, with a 6 mile-long wall of fire.
Two years later, Cai moved to New York and his work became more political. He says he thrived in the New York art scene in part because he didn’t have to explain his art. “The New York art world is so busy and vibrant that people rely on themselves to retrieve ideas.” Although he speaks fluent Japanese, Cai has yet to learn English. He insists that this is an asset: “It became a sort of privilege not needing to explain or elaborate on my ideas, but really focus on the visual and special quality of my work.”
One example is The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century. Cai used a small, handheld device to create mushroom-shaped clouds in locations all over America, including a nuclear test site in Nevada, at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah and outside Manhattan. While Cai himself doesn’t explain it, Munroe suggests that the work confronts us with a shape that evoked more terror and emotion than any other 20th-century work.

In Cai’s work The Century with Mushroom Clouds, he traveled the U.S. igniting small atom bomb-like explosions. Check out a video of the piece here at FLYP.

Cai’s most controversial work won him the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard shows a scene from a pre-Communist Social Realist drama, in which a dozen clay figures depicting peasants bring their rent into a notorious landlord’s residence, he brutally exploits the peasants and they get angry. The piece was a reproduction of an original propagandistic work from 1965 that was created by members of the Sichuan Fine Art Institute. Chinese officials accused Cai of destroying their “spiritual property” and the Sichuan Fine Art Institute filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement, which was ultimately dismissed by the court.
Today, Chinese officials love him. “China is happy to embrace him now,” Hsingyuan says. “He is a name and has a position in the West. He is a celebrity and that is an asset for China.”
That celebrity reached a peak with 2008’s Guggenheim exhibition and his Olympics extravaganzas. Now, Cai is looking forward to having time to work on smaller projects.

“Making art is kind of like making love, you can’t have extreme activities all the time, sometimes you need to be a little bit more reserved, subtle and flirtatious.” With FLYP’s video gallery, you can see short videos of a lot of Cai’s works over the past decade, in sites that range from South Africa to Japan to New York City.

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A story like this can only be appreciated with examples of this amazing artist’s work. You have captured the scale and beauty of what he does, and I will never look at fireworks the same again.

Greg Bocquet
Jan 18, 2009

When sending this to a friend, a woman very interested in innovations in the arts, thought of my local teacher from the south of China; and, then, my next thought was are these break-throughs happening for Chinese women in the arts because most often we are made aware of how much more individualism is being respected in China for the artist: male. Whether he is a film-maker,figurative painter, actor, musician,etc. Is this going to be a predominantly male ideational process of realizing the self in the whole world context with a developed creative consciousness? We are not getting a glimpse into where that self-liberated woman is since “the 1970s” (was that era enough to stop further coming out from the background into the light?).

Dianne Jarreau
Jan 18, 2009

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