Art That Goes Boom

The works of Cai Guo-Qiang, director of visual effects for the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic Games, truly sizzle

fireworks show over Washington D.C.s Potomac river
For the 2005 Festival of China, artist Cai Guo-Qiang created a fireworks display over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Ken Cedeno/Corbis

Editor's Note: Since this profile appeared in 2004, artist Cai Gou-Qiang's star has continued to rise. A retrospective of his work appeared at New York's Guggenheim Museum in early 2008 before traveling to Beijing and Bilbao. He is also the visual and special effects director for the opening and closing cermonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

On a gritty street in downtown New York City, a bright red door gives way to another world—the elegant, serene studio of Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced sigh gwo chang). Since moving to the United States in 1995, the 46-year-old Cai has been acclaimed for the startlingly original and unlikely public art projects he has staged around the world with explosives and precision pyrotechnics.

In London, he danced a fiery dragon-shaped line of burning gunpowder across the Thames' Millennium Bridge, then over the facade of the Tate Modern museum and up its tower. In China, he symbolically extended the Great Wall six miles into the Gobi desert with lines of blazing gunpowder fuses laid across the landscape. He flashed a monumental rainbow bridge of fireworks over Manhattan's East River (to mark the Museum of Modern Art's temporary relocation to Queens). And last year he hung a 1,000-foot-high revolving halo of white titanium fireworks salutes over New York's Central Park (to celebrate its 150th anniversary). New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote beforehand that it would display Cai's "spacious, macrocosmic, even galactic view of the world."

In contrast to his loud, flamboyant artworks, Cai himself is low-key and affable. He and his wife, Hong Hong Wu, who works with him, sometimes cook lunch for visitors in his studio's sleek kitchen, or put them up in guest quarters tucked behind a garden atrium. One recent morning, Cai sat near the atrium, amid stacks of books, quietly sketching with a pencil. He and Hong Hong have two daughters—14-year-old Wenyou and one-year-old Wen Hao, who played nearby on a blanket on the floor. At this moment, nothing about the artist resembled an impresario of pyrotechnic productions, but three staff members in an adjacent office worked a bank of computers and phones. When the studio's director, Jennifer Ma, who acts as a translator for Cai, said things are not always so peaceful, Cai, who knows some English, just laughed. Among other things, he is getting ready for exhibitions at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, both in Washington, D.C.

Lately he's also been sketching old-fashioned sailing ships in craggy harbors in preparation for a piece he's titled White Nights, planned for next summer in Venice and Norway. Handing over a travel guide to Norway's Lofoten Island chain, he said, "We'll be bringing a gift to people who live in these remote island villages above the Arctic Circle—shipboard fireworks displays during the pale twilight of the midnight sun." The plan, surprisingly ambitious given the small number of people—perhaps a hundred—who are expected to view the results, calls for Norwegian sailors and shipbuilders to go to China this winter, where they'll work with Chinese counterparts to refurbish a wooden, three-masted sailing vessel. The ship, about 66 feet long, will be transported by cargo container to Venice and unveiled there next summer (at the Venice Biennale exhibition of contemporary art) before embarking on a five- to six-week-long voyage north to the Lofoten Islands. "We will be taking the ancient Viking route partway, which once brought violence and fear," Cai says. "But now we will come from so far away, through so many oceans, just to bring pleasure."

Cai says he likes to think up new ways of using fireworks: "Why not do fireworks for very few people? Why not do them at midnight in some unknown place far away? Or why not do them during the day, in full sun?"

In fact, daylight fireworks are in store in January 2005 for Spain's Valencia Institute of Modern Art. Cai had been asked to do a project there some time ago, but in light of the world's violence, including the bombing of commuter trains outside Madrid last March, he wondered how he could make fireworks meaningful, even relevant, in Spain. Rather than the expected night display in glittering colors, he plans to set off Black Fireworks—typical pyrotechnic forms such as chrysanthemum bursts rendered in black smoke against a daylight sky.

Cai was born in Quanzhou, in China's southeastern province of Fujian, and he says his most important artistic influence is the ancient port city's historic role, since the days of Silk Road trading, as a peaceful cultural and ethnic crossroads. His father, a landscape painter and calligrapher, worked in a state-run bookstore. His mother was a homemaker. As a teenager, Cai studied martial arts and appeared in a few kung fu films. He had always dreamed of becoming an artist, and when he read about the work of Western conceptual artists in journals that filtered into China through Hong Kong, he realized that art could be much more than traditional painting and sculpture—it could be almost anything. Since no Chinese art school at the time offered classes in contemporary art, he studied stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute instead.

To inject an element of unpredictability in the oil paintings he was doing in the 1980s, Cai, still in China, began experimenting with gunpowder. Then, in 1986, he moved to Japan and began to use it in public art events. In Hiroshima in 1994, he ignited 6,150 pounds of gunpowder contained in packets attached to 114 helium balloons. The balloons were tethered in wide, spiraling circles descending toward the ground. A long fuse ran from the gunpowder packets to a pit in the ground. When detonated, the individual flashes created brilliant rings of fire in a cone formation. The effect, the Times' Cotter wrote, "was of fiery energy sucked into the earth, a mushroom cloud in reverse."

The following year Cai took an old Chinese junk full of herbal medicines from Quanzhou to Italy and sailed it up the Grand Canal as part of the Venice Biennale. Titled "Bring to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot," the piece marked the 700th anniversary of the Italian explorer's return to Venice from the East. Cai's work is "epic," ArtNews critic Carol Lutfy wrote, adding, "It melds the disciplines of geography, science, art, history and medicine," not to mention "stage design, narrative, drawing and installation."

One of Cai's most challenging schemes is scheduled for October 15 in California. Commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Art, the project will be part of the annual air show at the nearby Marine Corps' Miramar air station. "During this spectacular showing of military power," Cai explains, "six planes will streak across the sky, and you will suddenly see these mountains being sketched out with skywriting. And then four planes will dive down the center to make a waterfall, and divert to either side, creating streams. It will be a traditional, Chinese landscape, a very beautiful, poetic image hanging momentarily in the sky until the smoke drifts away." Civilian stunt pilots will fly the planes for Cai, who hopes that the art-in-the-sky will startle viewers out of a Top Gun state of mind and into peaceful contemplation. "And that," he says, "is enough to make it worthwhile."

Cai is enthralled by flight, space and the potential of life beyond our solar system. Indeed, he often dedicates his projects to extraterrestrials, who, he likes to imagine, may glimpse his works from outer space. But for now, anyway, he himself remains earthbound. "I only ride a bicycle," he says. "I don't even drive a car, but in my heart, I am flying the space shuttle."

Not all of Cai's works explode, and not all of his ideas fly. His installation at the Sackler Gallery (October 30-April 24, 2005) will feature the remains of an old wooden Japanese boat, resting on a "sea" of white china fragments from a venerable porcelain factory in Dehua, China, near his hometown. He was inspired by the Sackler's collection of prized Asian ceramics and by how the art and ideas of different cultures have historically been spread through trade. Concurrently, at the Hirshhorn, the artist will be showing recent plans that never made it beyond his red studio door. Among them are renderings of a computerized fireworks project for Paris that would have created a 1,000-foot-high outline of a red pagoda alongside, and equal in height to, the Eiffel Tower.

The Hirshhorn show will also feature several of what Cai calls his gunpowder drawings, which he makes by dribbling lines of gunpowder on large swaths of Japanese paper, covering them with cardboard weighted down with stones, then lighting a fuse. The burning gunpowder etches the paper with surprisingly delicate traceries in black, reddish browns and yellows. The drawings, though often abstract, have the dreamy quality of a southern Chinese landscape painting and exemplify Cai's pursuit of beauty through explosive forces. This seemingly contradictory aim underlies much of his work, and is traceable, he says, to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which holds that everything on earth consists of invisible energy, or chi, and that chaos is the true state of being.

Cai himself says that it's not just the flashy, pyrotechnic spectacle that's important. "It's that single, cataclysmic moment when matter turns into energy and creates a momentary spatial and temporal chaos." He adds that he doesn't much care whether that energy comes from a line of gunpowder or from a titanium shell salute: "It's the explosion," he says, "that matters."

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