His father’s art echoes in his son’s—calligraphy in water and now in fire. In using the deadly gunpowder, he is seeking to transform it from its lethal uses to the ethereal art of calligraphy. This is not just a vague concept: If you happened to find yourself outside the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery this past December, you could have seen Cai ignite a pine tree with gunpowder packets on the branches and transform it into an ethereal tree, a tree-shaped tracery of black smoke etched into the sky by black gunpowder ink.
Instead of his father’s Marxism, Cai says, his great influence was Chinese Taoist spirituality. Feng shui, Qi Gong and Buddhism play a role as well, their roots intertwined. He has written of a shaman he knew as a youth who protected him, and of his search for shamans in other cultures. “Spiritual mediums,” he tells me, “channel between the material world and the unseen world to a certain degree similar to what art does.” And he sees his art serving as a similar kind of channel, linking ancient and modern, Eastern and Western sensibilities. Feng shui and quantum physics.
He still believes in “evil spirits,” he says, and the power of feng shui to combat them. When I ask him about the source of the evil spirits the stone lion is guarding us from, he replies that they are “ghosts of dissatisfaction.” An interesting reconceptualization of evil.
For instance, he tells me that he was working on a project that involved the microbes in pond water, but brought it to a halt when a shaman warned him that “the water might contain the spirits of people who might have drowned or tried to kill themselves in the pond.”
As a youth, he says, “I was unconsciously exposed to the ties between fireworks and the fate of humans, from the Chinese practice of setting off firecrackers at a birth, a death, a wedding.” He sensed something in the fusion of matter and energy, perhaps a metaphor for mind and matter, humans and the universe, at the white-hot heart of an explosion.
By the time of the political explosion of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Cai had left China and was in Japan, where “I discovered Western physics and astrophysics.” And Hiroshima.
The revelation to him about Western physics, especially the subatomic and the cosmological Big Bang levels, was that it was somehow familiar. “My Taoist upbringing in China was very influential, but not until I got to Japan did I realize all these new developments in physics were quite close to Chinese Qi Gong cosmology. The new knowledge of astrophysics opened a window for me,” he says. The window between the mystical, metaphorical, metaphysical concepts of Taoism—the infinity of mind within us and that of the physical universe whose seemingly infinite dimensions outside us were being mapped by astrophysicists. For example, he says, “The theory of yin and yang is paralleled in modern astrophysics as matter and antimatter, and, in electromagnetism, the plus and minus.”
It was in thinking about the Big Bang that he made what was, to me at least, his most revelatory and provocative connection—that we were all there together at the Big Bang. That every particle in every human being was first given birth when the Big Bang brought matter into being. The unformed matter that would eventually evolve into us was all unified oneness at the moment of the Big Bang.
And it was in Japan that he found a focus also on the dark side of big bangs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And began what has been a lifelong artistic attempt to come to terms with that dark side. When he went to Hiroshima, he says, he felt the “essence of spirits there.”