Meet the Artist Who Blows Things Up for a Living

With ethereal artworks traced in flames and gunpowder, Cai Guo Qiang is making a big bang

Cai Guo-Qiang reviews one of his gunpowder drawings at the Grucci fireworks plant. (Jessica Dimmock / VII)
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Internationally lauded “explosives artist” Cai Guo-Qiang has already amassed some stunning stats: He may be the only artist in human history who has had some one billion people gaze simultaneously at one of his artworks. You read that right, one billion. I’m talking about the worldwide televised “fireworks sculpture” that Cai Guo-Qiang—China-born, living in America now—created for the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. If you’re one of the few earthlings who hasn’t seen it, either live or online, here’s Cai’s description: “The explosion event consisted of a series of 29 giant footprint fireworks, one for each Olympiad, over the Beijing skyline, leading to the National Olympic Stadium. The 29 footprints were fired in succession, traveling a total distance of 15 kilometers, or 9.3 miles, within a period of 63 seconds.”

But a mere billion pairs of eyes is not enough for Cai’s ambition. He’s seeking additional viewers for his works, some of whom may have more than two eyes. I’m speaking of the aliens, the extraterrestrials that Cai tells me are the real target audience for his most monumental explosive works. Huge flaming earth sculptures like Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, in which Cai detonated a spectacular six-mile train of explosives, a fiery elongation of the Ming dynasty’s most famous work. Meant to be seen from space: He wants to open “a dialogue with the universe,” he says. Or his blazing “crop circle” in Germany, modeled on those supposed extraterrestrial “signs” carved in wheat fields—a project that called for 90 kilograms of gunpowder, 1,300 meters of fuses, one seismograph, an elec­troencephalograph and an electro­cardiograph. The two medical devices were there to measure Cai’s physiological and mental reactions as he stood in the center of the explosions, to symbolize, he told me, that the echoes of the birth of the universe can still be felt in every molecule of every human cell.

Maybe there’s the sly wink of a showman behind these interspatial aspirations, but Cai seems to me to be distinctive among the current crop of international art stars in producing projects that aren’t about irony, or being ironic about irony, or being ironic about art about irony. He really wants to paint the heavens like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Only with gunpowder and flame.

When I visit Cai (as everyone calls him, pronouncing it “Tsai”) in his spare East Village Manhattan studio with a big red door and a feng shui stone lion guarding the entrance within, we sit at a glass table flanked by wall-size wood screens: his gunpowder “drawings.” These are large white surfaces upon which Cai has ignited gunpowder to make unexpectedly beautiful black traceries, works of abstract art that remind one of the intricate signage of traditional Chinese calligraphy or those photo negative telescopic prints of deep space in which the scattered stars and galaxies are black on white. Violence transformed into ethereal beauty.

Cai, who looks younger than his mid-50s, fit, with a severe brush-cut of hair, is joined by a translator and project manager, Chinyan Wong, and we are served tea by a member of his artmaking collective as we begin talking about his childhood. He tells me a story of profound family sorrow during the Cultural Revolution—and the “time bomb” in his house.

“My family lived in Quanzhou, across the strait from Taiwan,” he says, where it was routine to hear artillery batteries firing into the mist at the island the mainland regime wanted to reincorporate into China.

“These were my first experiences of explosions.

“My father,” Cai says, “was a collector of rare books and manuscripts,” and an adept at the delicate art of calligraphy. But when the Cultural Revolution began in the mid-’60s, Mao Zedong turned his millions of subjects against anyone and any sign of intellectual or elite practices, including any art or literature that was not propaganda.

“Intellectuals” (meaning just about anyone who read, or even possessed, books) were beaten, jailed or murdered by mobs and all their works burned in pyres. “My father knew his books, scrolls and calligraphy were a time bomb in his house,” Cai recalls. So he began burning his precious collection in the basement. “He had to do it at night so that no one would know.”

Cai tells me that after burning his beloved manuscripts and calligraphy, his father went into a strange self-exile, afraid that his reputation as a collector of books would lead to his death. He left his family home and found a perilous refuge in a ruined Buddhist nunnery where the last remaining 90-year-old devotee gave him sanctuary. There—and this is the especially heartbreaking part—“my father would take sticks and write calligraphy in puddles on the ground,” Cai says. “The calligraphy would disappear” when the water evaporated, leaving behind, Cai once wrote, eloquently, “invisible skeins of sorrow.” Not entirely invisible, one senses, but inscribed like calligraphy on his son’s memory and heart.


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