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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I know what he means. I had been to Hiroshima researching a recent book on nuclear war (How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III) not long before Cai had done one of his signature works there. And Hiroshima is strange in its weird serenity. The actual bomb site has been covered over with smoothly rolling lawns (although there are also museums that can give you all the nuclear gore you want). But in general, it’s a peaceful place. Aside from one skeletal dome-topped remnant of a civic structure, there is little trace of the blast that changed the world.

Yet at night you can sense those spirits Cai speaks of. I’d never felt anything so uncanny.

Cai has created “mushroom clouds” over the Nevada atomic testing grounds site and in many other locations across the United States. Mushroom clouds of non-radioactive smoke. Somehow, he hopes, they will exorcise the real mushroom clouds of the past and the potential ones of the future.

But he had trouble, he tells me, with his original plans for Hiroshima, a project he first designed for the 1994 Asian Games. It involved a black cloud descending in a kind of parachute to land harmlessly on Hiroshima’s ground zero. “The idea,” he says, “was meant to suggest that fire descending from the sky has the potential to initiate rebirth. But it faced strong objection...and I had to give up the proposal.”

So he went back to the drawing board and would later win the Hiroshima Art Prize for one of his most brilliant creations, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too. “This explosion project was realized at Hiroshima central park,” he has written, near “the target of the atomic bomb. I dug a deep hole in the ground at the center of the park and then I used 114 helium balloons at various heights to hold aloft 2,000 meters of fuse and three kilograms of gunpowder, which together formed a spiral with a 100-meter diameter, to mimic the orbits of heavenly stars. The ignition kicked off then from the highest and outermost point to the spiral, burning inward and downward in concentric circles, and disappeared into the ‘black hole’ in the center of the park. The sound from the explosion was extremely violent; the bang echoed and rocked the entire city. My intention was to suggest that in harnessing nuclear energy, humanity has generated its own black hole in the earth that mirrors those in space.”

It was a daring, explosive commemoration of sorrow that surpassed even the spectacle of the Olympics and its celebration of strength. He created a kind of inverse nuclear blast at the very site of the death weapon’s impact.

In one of his earliest projects, “I wrote [an alternate history] in which the secret of nuclear power was discovered by physicists but they decided not to use it to make weapons,” he said, and then faxed the fantasy to art galleries and a far-flung list of political luminaries.

We talk further about nuclear weapons. I ask him a question that has pervaded discussion in the controversies I wrote about: exceptionalism. Are nuclear weapons just exponentially more powerful than conventional weapons or is the difference so great they must be judged by different rules of “just war morality,” military strategy and urgency of abolition?

Cai makes the important point that nukes can’t be judged like the use of other weapons because of one key factor: time. “With the release of energy in traditional explosions the energy is dissipated quickly. With nuclear weapons there is constant preservation of its effects”—nuclear isotopes persist in emitting poisonous radiation for many lifetimes of half-lives.

Nuclear weapons rule over time as well as space. Cai also has a shrewd awareness of one of the key problems of nuclear strategy: deterrence theory. Referring to the subtitle of my book, The Road to a Nuclear World War III, he asks, “Couldn’t it be said that it is because of nuclear weapons there will be no World War III?”


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