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New York-based gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang talks with NewsChina about his work’s deep connections with people of different classes, cultures and his hometown – Quanzhou

By Kui Yanzhang Updated Feb.1

Filled with gunpowder, 150 oak barrels floated like piano keys on the Charente River in Cognac, France. After a five-second countdown, 21,915 fireworks of green, white, gold and orange launched from them to the sky, kicking off a 15-minute daytime display.  

The September 2020 spectacle was the work of artist Cai Guo-Qiang for the 150th anniversary celebration of cognac brand Hennessy X.O.  

Cai said the work, titled “The Birth of Tragedy” – inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name – symbolizes the perpetual cycle of creation and destruction, while also delivering a message of resilience and hope for a world still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“The pandemic brought us great difficulties and it prompted us to reflect,” Cai said in an accent that hints at his Fujian Province roots. “We are now entering a new chapter of humankind’s strenuous odyssey... While the fireworks express my contemplations on tragedy, art and the essence of life, I hope the audience will draw inspiration from the fireworks in order to reconcile with nature and find the power to heal.”  

One of the most prominent artists in the contemporary art scene, Cai is best known for his use of gunpowder and fireworks. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cai impressed the world with his “Giant Footprints” – a series of foot-shaped fireworks that traveled north from the capital’s ancient southern gate of Yongdingmen to the National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. His own artistic footprints span the world: The 64-year-old artist has completed 548 art projects in 41 countries and regions on five continents. In 2008, US magazine Newsweek called him “an avatar of cultural globalization.”  

Though the pandemic has made the world more isolated than before, his artistic odyssey has not ceased. In the last three years, he held exhibitions in five countries including Italy, Australia and Mexico. In order to prepare exhibitions in China as well as a fireworks project for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, he has traveled between the US and China three times, each trip including a two-week quarantine in Shanghai.  

It has been 35 years since Cai left China in 1986. The Cold War had ended and cultures were becoming more connected, enabling him to set sail around the world on the winds of globalization. But now, Cai is concerned the world will become closed off once again.  

Cai is cautious about talking to media these days. He declined most interview requests from Chinese media after he held an exhibition at the Palace Museum in Beijing last December, concerned his words might be construed into a pre-conceived patriotic narrative.  

Mushroom Clouds 
In 1996, not long after arriving in the US, he acquired the proper permits to enter the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. There he detonated small explosive devices that formed miniature mushroom clouds.  

Many big events in China have been crowned with Cai’s fireworks, including APEC China 2001 in Shanghai, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China’s 70th National Day Anniversary, as well as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.  

His work displays a sense of childhood wonder, acute sensitivity and deep humanity. “Sky Ladder” – his most ambitious artwork – is the best example. A project 21 years in the making, that took him three attempts before succeeding in 2015.  

On Huiyu Island, a picturesque fishing village off the coast of his native Quanzhou, Fujian Province, Cai unfurled a 500-meter long, 5.5-meter wide ladder lined with gold fireworks from a gigantic weather balloon floating above. He ignited the ladder of fireworks from the ground, which appeared to climb the ladder toward the sky. The artist dedicated the work to his beloved 100-year grandmother, his parents and his hometown.  

“Behind ‘Sky Ladder’ lies a clear childhood dream of mine,” Cai said in a press release. “I have always been determined to realize it... It carries affection for my hometown, my relatives and my friends.”  

Listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site this year, Quanzhou was among the world’s earliest global trade centers. In 1292, Marco Polo visited Quanzhou (then called Citong) before departing for his home in Venice, Italy, after two decades in Asia. He described Quanzhou as a “very great and noble city” more prosperous than Alexandria.  

Historically, Quanzhou was an open and inclusive city. Cai recalled that even during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Quanzhou was far more open and tolerant than the rest of China.  

“I was fortunate enough to be born in such a lovely city. It’s a city of diversity, openness, freedom, individualism and ease, a place with corners that the tumultuous storms of the social movements couldn’t reach,” Cai told NewsChina.  

His father worked at a State-run bookstore, where he was in charge of storing foreign books for government use only. During the Cultural Revolution, when the country was cut off from the outside world, Cai’s father often secretly brought home foreign books ranging from Samuel Beckett’s plays to Mikhail Sholokhov’s AndQuiet Flows the Don and Nobel Prize winning works. He asked his son to finish reading each in one day. These precious experiences opened young Cai’s first window to the outside world.  

It was also his father that taught him about art. “When I was a boy, I often sat in my father’s lap and rolled his cigarettes. My father drew miniature landscapes in pen on the matchbox while he smoked. Sometimes he drew a series of landscapes on multiple matchboxes,” Cai said.  

Cai’s father often held salons at home, inviting friends to discuss books, draw and practice calligraphy. Nourished by a family rich in art ambience, Cai was determined to dedicate himself to art.  

Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-qiang: The Nine Wave, on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, Shangahi, August 8, 2014

Playing with Fire 
In 1981, Cai was admitted to the Shanghai Theater Academy to study stage design at 24 years old. During his college years, waves of avant-garde art from the West were pouring into China. They shocked the young artist, who grew up with traditional Chinese art and socialist realism.  

He lost confidence in his creative abilities. Cai would rework already finished paintings, murmuring to himself as he drew. His wife Wu Honghong recalls Cai felt so lost about his art and future that he began drinking.  

But he overcame his creative block by experimenting with different mediums. The hope was that working with new materials would liberate him from his self-consciousness. He tried a hair-dryer to warm paint on canvas and use charred paints, but was not satisfied.  

In 1984, he decided to play with fire.  

Initially he tried to throw firecrackers or shoot rockets at his paintings, but the canvas would burn. Then he removed the gunpowder from firecrackers, sprinkled it over the canvas and ignited it with cigarettes or matches. After many experiments, inspiration finally came with a visit from his grandmother.  

She had arrived at his studio just as his canvas was burning. She threw a cloth over it to extinguish the fire.  

“She taught me that what I needed was not only to light a fire, but also to put it out. Knowing how to extinguish fire is where the artist’s real virtuosity lies,” Cai told our reporter.  

Cai’s work ”Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City,” exhibited in the Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2021

‘Avatar of Globalization’ 
But Cai’s gunpowder art drew little attention in China during the 1980s. The Chinese art landscape was riding the New Wave (1985-89), an avant-garde movement widely regarded as the birth of contemporary Chinese art. Around 100 art collectives emerged across the country, their styles influenced by Western modernism and postmodernism movements.  

Neither a pioneer nor a traditionalist, Cai was not well received by China’s art world. In the mid-1980s, as China reopened its economy, many young people yearned to study abroad. Cai was among the earliest to go. After graduating in 1986, he continued his studies in Japan. Cai brought a handful of dirt and a bottle of water from his hometown, and spread them on the ground after arriving.  

“I tried to build a bond between myself and the strange land. The earth and water from my hometown excited awe and gratitude in me. They were blessings of peace and safety,” Cai told NewsChina.  

Cai arrived during a period of retrospection in Japan. Many questioned the culture of modernity brought on by development and sought to rediscover Japanese identity through cultural traditions. The Japanese art world embraced Cai’s gunpowder art and its elements of East Asian culture. Cai lived in Japan for nine years, and built a successful career. He moved to New York in 1995, and has since toured the world. Cai not only developed deep connections with Japan and the US, but strived to link his art to the local cultures and people of all the places he visited. 

“It’s a kind of ‘delving into life and connecting the people,’” Cai said, quoting a speech by Mao Zedong delivered at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942.  

For a 2011 project in Donetsk, Ukraine, Cai followed coal miners one kilometer down into the earth. He invited nine local socialist realism artists to paint the portraits of 27 miners, which he ignited with different grades and grains of gunpowder as part of an installation titled “Monuments on Shoulders.” In 2016, Cai traveled to Doha, Qatar to curate the exhibition “What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China.” He taught local volunteers to draw horse and flower patterns on cardboard, which he used in his gunpowder art.  

Decades of engaging with local communities around the globe has made him a true cosmopolitan always seeking to spark chemistry between his creative expression and different cultures.  

When asked about the relationship between his work and his hometown, Cai cited one of the most famous historic figures to ever visit, Marco Polo.  

“Roughly 700 years ago, when Marco Polo came to China, he told Kublai Khan many stories. One day, Kublai Khan asked him, ‘You’ve told me so many stories. Why have you never told me something about your hometown Venice?’ Marco Polo answered, ‘My hometown is part of all these stories.’ I feel the same way,” Cai told NewsChina.