Brilliant Ideas Episode #30:
Artist communicating with tremendous energy
Emblems of dynamic China
Growing up under the calligrapher father in a house that values tradition, Cai Guo-Qiang studied stage art in Shanghai Theatre Academy despite his family’s disapproval. In 1986, when China was starting to go through a reform, he left China and started making artworks traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. Though he has been based in foreign countries, he is one of the artists who represents “Chineseness,” holding a large scaled retrospective in the Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum in New York, and presenting his work at the opening ceremony of the ‘Beijing 2008 Olympics.’ Dealing with enormous and dynamic Chinese emblems, his artworks send countless messages, crossed between modern art and Chinese traditions. Brilliant Ideas Episode 30 features Cai Guo-Qiang, a master who represents Chinese modern art, presented by Bloomberg and Hyundai Motor.
Glamorous alchemist of gunpowder
Cai Guo-Qiang raises questions about various issues of the modern society through his works. The artist’s passion is reflected in the artworks, such as a performance of scattering gunpowder on a sketch of a particular subject matter to complete a drawing, or a work that includes a tens-of-meter wide drawing hung from the ceiling and reflected by a pond filled with olive oil; through these artworks, he constantly questions about the harmony of life and art, focusing on what exists and what disappears, light and darkness, and yin(陰) and yang(陽). While casting philosophical questions through his works, the artist is highly active in diversifying the scale and creating methods of his works. Presenting drawings in which gunpowder is used, elaborate sculpture pieces, large-scaled explosion and installation works, his attempts at artwork creation continue to advance without hesitation. Among the numerous works, what imprinted his name on the Chinese modern art scene would be the gunpowder drawing series. His distinctive Oriental paintings drawn on paper with gunpowder rather than ink show a variety of phases: when gunpowder laid on paper in a certain design is set on fire and explodes, the flames rising from the gunpowder becomes a piece of drawing; when the rising flames and smoke is quickly covered with a cloth to extinguish the fire, the traces of the exploded gunpowder also becomes a drawing, along with flames and smoke of various colors remaining as a part of the work.
These drawings that reminds one of ink paintings feature gunpowder, one of the most representative Chinese inventions, combined with performance art. The energy generated from the autonomic and uncontrollable gunpowder explosion seems even spectacular. Cai Guo-Qiang, however, does not merely concentrate on the splendor of explosion, but also places highly explosive gunpowder and easily burnable paper together to deliver a meticulous message; through gunpowder, of which the Chinese expression consist of “fire” and “medicine,” he addresses his own philosophy, such as “Little things can contain big things” or “A being is never weak,” of which the meaning can differ from person to person. No wonder he is considered an artist who represents “Chineseness,” for he presents Oriental paintings abstracted by explosion using paper and gunpowder, which are inventions that Chinese are proud of.
Affection to native country expressed in modern art
Cai Guo-Qiang held a retrospective in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2008 for the first time as a Chinese artist. In the exhibition titled <Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe>, which is a first-person narration, the artist sported his competence through large-scaled installation works including hundreds of stuffed animals and a row of cars tumbling down, along with his media artworks.
In the same year, he was selected as the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the ‘2008 Summer Olympics’ in Beijing, and lighted up the sky of Beijing with his grand fireworks, firming his position as an artist who represents his nation. Though he was already a world-known artist at the time of the ‘Olympics’, he applied for working for the opening and closing ceremonies to raise the artistic level of the event held in his home country to make it an international and contemporary artwork. Coming through a competition of 400 to 1, the artist played an important role in enhancing the artistic position of China, and the works he presented at the opening ceremony is still remembered by many people.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s avant-garde, experimental, and Land art like works attract many gazes. ‘Projects for Extraterrestrials’ is a project launched in 1990, in which gunpowder installed in multiple places exploded in a pattern of dragon, an emblem of the past Chinese empire and legends. Through this work performed in many places throughout the world, the artist wanted to show his belief that gunpowder, which was invented by China, was a new system that conveyed beauty and joy. Other works of his that assume a site-specific conceptual-art tinge include ‘Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for 20th Century’(1996) and <Light Cycle>(2003), which delivers artistic concepts and messages, while also revealing affection of the artist to his homeland. Nature, paper and countless objects mingled with explosion of gunpowder found in his work let people to look back at themselves and even change the way they see the world.
He says “the process of finding the perfect reality within art is most exciting thing and that is something I can do well.” Cai Guo-Qiang, who practices traditional artistic technique without being bounded to convention, is still sparking his explosive passion for art. ■ with ARTINPOST
<Fairytale> Rockbund Art Museum, China 2010
<Reflection-A Gift from lwaki> Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan 2009
<Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project> Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2009
<Dream> Villa Manin Centro d'Arte Contemporanea, Codroipo, Italy 2008
<Inopportune: Stage One> Sydney, Australia 2010
<Complex Rockbund> Art Museum, China 2010
<Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows> National Art Museum of China, Beijing, China 2008
<Head On> National Museum of Singapore, Singapore 2010
When people discuss about the Chinese contemporary art scene, Cai Guo-Qiang is mentioned as one of the important artists who have influence. Most of his works focus on the current situation in China: Maoist, Socialist concepts. Especially, his “gunpowder drawing” strongly reflects Mao Zedong’s belief “destroy nothing, create nothing.” His works also include a wide narrative, traditions, Chinese medicine, science, flora and fauna, fireworks.
Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist who was born in 1957 and he currently lives and works in New York. The artist was influenced by his father who was a calligrapher and traditional painter and worked in a bookstore. Through this background, he was exposed to Western literature and traditional Chinese art. He has had several solo exhibitions including exhibitions at the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles(MoCA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He has also had the honor of being given the golden lion prize at the “48th Venice Biennale.”