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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He is not hesitant. It might help Westerners to learn, he suggests, that “Many things don’t have an immediate solution, and many conflicts cannot be resolved immediately. Sometimes things take time to heal and when you take a longer time you might be better able to accomplish your goal.

“So in art and artistic expression,” he continues, “the things you’re trying to relay, they can be full of conflict, and you do not necessarily have to use art to resolve all these conflicts. As long as you acknowledge these conflicts or address the conflict in your art, that is already meaningful.”

It makes me think of the poet John Keats’ idea of “negative capability”: the distinction of a first-rate mind is that it can entertain conflicting ideas, “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching” after certainty.

When we finish our conversation and I join the members of his collective for a lunch of many dishes Eastern and Western, Cai tells me about his continuing dream project, in which he goes around the world (next stop, Brazil) creating a “ladder to the sky” of fire in the air above the earth, symbolizing his desire to invite extraterrestrials to descend, or for us to ascend to meet them.

As I leave, I pat the head of the stone lion, hoping the beast will protect us should the aliens Cai is inviting turn out to have less than benign intentions.


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