Cai Guo-Qiang is from Fujian province in southern China, but he lived and worked in Shanghai and Japan before establishing himself in New York in 1995. An explosive dynamics literally characterizes his work: he first became known for creating drawings by igniting gunpowder on paper and using pyrotechnics in spectacular installations.
Whether extending the Great Wall 10 km in the middle of the Gobi desert, exploding a rainbow of fireworks over the East River in New York, re-designing the city of Mito after the principles of Feng Shui, or sailing a traditional Chinese junk into Venice, his goal is to link individuals together in a chain of opportunities that also unite time and space.
Cai grew up during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) in an area marked by tensions between China and Taiwan. Due to the softening of cultural policies in China in the 1980s, his generation of artists received access to Western twentieth-century art history, which until then had been prohibited. Contrary to the propaganda of the official art, these artists were critical of the collective state ideology, were politically and socially engaged, and were open to all forms of individual expression. Through set-design studies in Shanghai between 1981 and 1985, Cai gained knowledge of theater’s ability to manipulate time and space, and of how a well-planned staged act can be perceived as spontaneous by the audience. After his studies he moved to Japan and spent the next ten years there.
Cai began his career with paintings that he later developed through collage and pyrotechnics. In one of his first firework projects, he laid gunpowder along the silhouette of his shadow on paper and lit it. The result was a dynamic burned and charred silhouette – a ghostlike index, like a borderline between matter and spirit. In this way, gunpowder becomes a material whose forces are both creative and destructive. The principle behind these works is to allow for the random and unprepared. In the sense that they often take place in the blink of an eye, but still manage to create a lasting visual impression, each explosion manipulates past, present and future. The gunpowder can as easily be linked to military operations as to spectacular entertainment, and explosions are also metaphors for upheaval, violence and revolution. In this connotation there is a reminder that life can change in an instant.
In the mid-1990s Cai moved to New York and began producing sculptures and room-sized installations that often refer to animals and other organic forms. The work Cry Dragon, Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Kahn (1996) was made of 108 stuffed sheepskins shaped as a dragon, and commented on socio-political changes in the relationship between China and the United States – a future and a present superpower. The conceptual is a constant factor in Cai's works, even if his visual expressions appear in a wide range of media from alcohol, Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, boats, kites, arrows, Chinese blocks, and taxidermied animals, to lanterns and the color red. In his diverse settings he often uses conflicting dualities: the supernatural and the historical, Eastern and Western, the religious and the mythological, without succumbing to a logical narrative or obvious interpretation. Some works have a cosmic basis, others have dealt with the earth and the landscape, and many are about individual endeavor or cultural history. At the base of his work is a lifelong fascination with the unforeseen forces that affect the physical and mental world.
(Photo: Lin Yi. Courtesy Cai Studio)