The Art of
Shock & Awe
Text and photographs by John Grande
Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China. The son of a historian and painter, Cai was trained in stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute from 1981 to 1985 and his work has, since the outset, been scholarly and often politically charged. Having accomplished himself across a variety of media, Cai initially began working with gunpowder to foster spontaneity and confront the suppression that he felt from the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China at the time. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, Cai explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale, and the development of his signature explosion events, exemplified inhis series, Projects for Extraterrestrials. These explosion projects, both wildly poetic and ambitious at their core, aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them. Cai quickly achieved international prominence
Art critic, writer, lecturer and interviewer, John Grande's reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photo-graphy, Espace Sculpture, Public Art Review, Vie des Arts, Art On Paper, Circa & Canadian Forum. He is also the author of Balance: Art and Nature (a newly expanded edition by Black Rose Books in, 2004), Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998), Jouer avec le feu: Armand Vaillancourt: Sculpteur engagé (Lanctot, 2001), and his most recent book, Dialogues in Diversity: Marginal to Mainstream published in Italy in 2007 by Pari Publishing.
Recent collaborations include Le Mouvement Intuitif: Patrick Dougherty & Adrian Maryniak (Atelier 340 Muzeum, Brussels, Belgium 2004) and Nature the End of Art: Alan Sonfist Landscapes with Robert Rosenblum et al, 2004
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John Grande speaks
with Cai Guo-Qiang
during his tenure in Japan and his work was shown widely around the world.His approach draws on a wide variety of symbols, narratives, traditions and materials such as feng shui, Chinese medicine, dragons, roller coasters, computers, vending machines and gunpowder. He has been selected as a finalist for the1996 Hugo Boss Prize and been merited with awards such as The 48th Venice Biennial International Golden Lion Prize and 2001 CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts. Among many of the artist's solo exhibitions and projects are the notable curating the first China Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005; Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006; Tornado: Explosion Project for the Festival of China, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 2005; Cai Guo-Qiang: Inopportune, Mass MoCA, North Adams, 2005; Cai Guo-Qiang: Traveler, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 2004; Organizing and curating BMoCA: Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art, Kinmen, Taiwan, 2004; Light Cycle: Explosion Project for Central Park, New York, 2003; Ye Gong Hao Long: Explosion Project for Tate Modern, Tate Modern, 2003, Transient Rainbow, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002; Cai Guo-Qiang, Shanghai Art Museum, 2002; APEC Cityscape Fireworks Show, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Shanghai, 2001; Cai Guo-Qiang: An Arbitrary History, Musee d'art Contemporain Lyon, France, 2001; Cultural Melting Bath: Projects for the 20th Century, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1997; Flying Dragon in the Heavens, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebaek, Denmark, 1997; The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too, Hiroshima, Japan, 1994; and Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, Jiayuguan City, China, 1993.
Through years of artistic practice, Cai has formulated collaborative relationships with specialists and experts from various disciplines, including scientists, doctors, feng shui masters, designers, architects, choreographers and composers, such as Issey Miyake, Rapheal Vinõly, Zaha Hadid, Tan Dun and Tsai Ming-liang among others.
C G-Q: The era we are living in is totally transient. Politicians are actors; voters become performers and appreciators. The roles are changed. Even in war, the play we are putting on is very theatrical
JG: Out of chaos we create culture
C G-Q: If it is too clean there is no way we can make any culture or art. The best place for an artist to be is between black and white.
JG: If life is a museum there is no death
C G-Q: That is what Jean-Francois Lyotard said: “We have never been born.”
JG: But you said the 20th century is the era where everyone can be an artist, and the 21st century is the era in which every place can become a museum Can you tell me something about your gunpowder drawings…for instance the gunpowder drawing you made in Vancouver some time back
C G-Q: Yes. In 2001, the drawing, Fountain, was made directly on the wall and there was a point where gunpowder was placed too high on the wall. The museum had to call the fire department to extinguish the fire.
JG: In a sense the theatre of fireworks presents an element of uncontrollability, of something not controlled that is very much like nature’s processes…
C G-Q: I actually call my work “explosion projects” rather than “fireworks.” I am more interested in the explosion, which is the nature of gunpowder reactions. Fireworks are only one type of explosion.
JG: Did you feel the restricted environment in China before it became an open society was an impetus for the original gunpowder works?
C G-Q: Partially, yes. There is a saying in Chinese that goes: “When a thing reaches its extremity, it will reverse its course.” My use of gunpowder as a source of creativity is to liberate myself from the repressing political system and the burdensome cultural and civilization heritage. It is more of a personal act and reaction. Gunpowder in Chinese actually means “fire medicine.” Though it has traditional associations, I used it in a way to actually break with those traditions and to develop my own language.
JG: Some critics have likened this work to a scroll panting or a panoramic vision…but these environments are still filled with objects, very much a material metaphor, something that remains a window in three dimensions.
C G-Q: You are right. I made Inopportune: Stage One into a form that resembles three-dimensional scrolls. I also added the dimension of time to this installation. When you pass by the cars suspended in mid-air, you see the light shift from one end to the other on the lighting rods. There is this element of time in the installation. It is like explosions; There is time and different segments of the process. In my earlier work Project for Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters was an opening up of the Gobi Desert with gunpowder, almost like opening a scroll into the Gobi desert. Same token, the Transient Rainbow Project over the East River in New York (2002) also has this element of “opening up a scroll.”
JG: … an unrolling or unfolding process. The element of artificiality you introduce into your work, does this also have this notion that life is a window we look into through art…
C G-Q: Not just a window to look at life, but also a window to look through at our society. Through that lens we can also be connected to tradition.
JG: So we are not that different from animals
C G-Q: Of course there is a difference between humans and animals, but to me when I am making an artwork I tend to anthropomorphize the animals, and to make them appear in a sympathetic fashion. I tend to choose fierce animals like tigers, crocodiles to demonstrate how we as humans have similar characteristics, even if we have these civilized institutions, law and ethics, but in the end these artworks are intended to remind people of our animal qualities.
JG: All these arrows in your tigers remind me of your piece called Borrow Your Enemy’s Arrows are used to construct a boat or vehicle that can carry one through life or on a journey… Can you tell me something about the Earthworm Room.
C G-Q: This was done at Bard Center for Curatorial Studies museum in 1998. I was invited and had only $1,000 in resources to realize my project. The piece, called New York Earthworm Room, was a comment on Walter de Maria’s Earth Room.
JG: I feel that the Asian artists have less fear of imitation than Western artists. One might consider the Cave of 1000 Buddhas in Japan, where objects are replicated over centuries. This act of replication existed in Western societies, in the icon for example, and so there is originality in replication as much as there is in avant gardist art with its endless search for novelty. In Venice, you had artists replicate his own work…
C G-Q: It was replication in the manner of the masters. In the 1960s in China, under the government’s guidance, artisans made realistic sculptures to depict the pain of the feudal system. That was what my work at the 1999 Venice Biennale was: having one of the original Chinese sculpture masters re-perform the act of making the same works that he made in the 60s and bringing historical realism into the realm of contemporary art.
JG: Does nature create with or withouout consciousness?
C G-Q: That is a very complicated question. Alfred Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore once had a debate if we had removed the Earth, would astronomy ever mean anything? The poet insisted that without people contemplating what this Earth means, it is all meaningless. Same analogy: flowers are beautiful but without anybody appreciating them, then there is no such discussion about flowers or beauty.
JG: But they are still a part of the economy of nature…Feng shui theory suggests that when
Some people say assemblage is a bringing together of elements. From a Native American perspective it is a taking away from a context…
C G-Q: The artist’s role is not like lawyer’s. They are not here to judge. They are not supposed to resolve conflicts. Conflicts are always there.
JG: At the Guggenheim in 1996 you made a piece that won the Hugo Boss prize that is actually now part of the Guggenheim Collection…Can you tell me something about this piece…
C G-Q: The work, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, comprises a series of Toyota car engines and sheepskin rafts which are traditionally used for transportation in Mongolia, even today. This is a work that develops a dialogue between the old and new. It is also a work that comments on the ancient Chinese power connected with the car culture of today…
JG: The monuments in New York on the roof of the Metropolitan this summer. There are two of these … Transparent Monument and a Non-Transparent Monument…
C G-Q: Transparent Monument is a fifteen-foot pane of glass sitting on the rooftop
JG: Does the Non-Transparent Monument allude to September 11th tragedy.
C G-Q: It is a nine-panel stone relief that has images of the contemporary world. This sculpture was made by artisans in China after images that I picked from the contemporary media. Images that are recognizable and that reference daily activities one encounters in the news like the Tsunami, portraits of world leaders, Hurricane Katrina, and cloning, plastic surgery… Small puff of black smoke will be ignited each day from the rooftop of the Met this summer in a ritual ceremonial called Clear Sky Black Cloud.
It is a multi-faceted piece. My work does not use the Western approach of a single perspective, it has multiple perspectives.
JG: Do you find that Japan changed your aesthetic coming from China …
C G-Q: I feel the precision and my use of materials changed quite dramatically. When you look at traditional Chinese art, whatever they paint or write is conceptual political, with social commentary. In other words, they express political and social concerns through their work. Their concepts fit into whatever method they have to create their art. Japanese artists are very fixated on what materials they use, how they use them, and the details of the manufacture…
JG: That is like the Amerindian artists, who have no hierarchy of materials, and perceive them quite objectively by way of comparison with Westerners …
C G-Q: In the Chinese cultural tradition most people are conceptual, but they are less formalist, and people in Japan have a very different approach. When I make a gunpowder drawing I am very particular about which type of gunpowder I use. It is important. The various literati painters in Ming and Qing dynasties are very particular about what sort of ink they will use for a particular scroll or composition… As you move towards the present artists have become very eager to express what their frustrations may be, rather than concentrating on the material. This is true for the whole society…
JG: But this can go full circle. An individual expression without an audience or a social context is not effective in any way…
C G-Q: I am not saying that either way is better…
JG: We are told that Chinese culture now is much more social than Japanese.
C G-Q: The conflicts and problems in Chinese society are more progressive. It is more difficult to live in China than in Japan. That is why people are more ambitious and have much more expectations in China on of the artist and what he or she may produce. There is a lot of satire, for instance…
JG: We live in a society that is very much oriented towards spectacle. The fireworks piece are very much spectacles we witness, events. How do you perceive them as art…
C G-Q: First of all when there is a work that has a strong conceptual backing such as the Project for Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters done in Jiayuguan, China, or the The Earth has a Black Hole Too in Hiroshima, Japan (1994), you see curators and museum goers there. You know this is a piece of art from the type of audience. When you move that to a grand scale such as the Transient Rainbow over the East River in New York, and have thousands and thousands of spectators watching the event, much like they might do for 4th of July Fireworks, there is a very different sort of emotion… With an art museum as a background, it is much easier, the social or cultural comment is accepted as art, but when you translate that into a larger audience the budget is much bigger, so you have much greater expectations, and with a big show you cannot distinguish that from other large scale events that are not art.
JG: Your work has theatrical aspects that bring to mind Ando from Japan, and Kounellis from Greece, but works in an altogether different way, for you conceive audience on another plane…
C G-Q: Gunpowder is a dangerous material. With these huge explosion projects,
JG: I believe Claude Levi-Strauss mentioned that dance was the first art…
C G-Q: How to make ceremony and festive events art is one of my preoccupations these days, the shaman’s role even…Fans, for instance, are part of the origins of art, as are ritualistic performances. The aesthetics of explosions are always somewhat imperfect, which is a relief…
JG: What current and upcoming projects would you like to mention…
C G-Q: A solo exhibition at the Guggenheim in Berlin was held in August 2006 with a few new works as well as an explosion project. I will be going to make a large-scale gunpowder drawing for the permanent installation of the newly constructed Min Tai Yuan Museum in China in Quanzhou, my hometown. I.M. Pei renovated the old Suzhou Museum building and invited me to install a work at the new gallery there. There will also be a collaboration with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan premiering in November 2006. The Guggenheim New York retrospective will be coming up in the spring of 2008.