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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In other words, only the possession of nuclear weapons by more than one nation can deter the use of nuclear weapons. It’s a position taken by many nuclear strategists, though one that depends on faith in human rationality and the absence of catastrophic accidents.

He speaks worriedly about how this will apply to another potential nuclear flash point: the periodic spikes in tension between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the seas between the two countries. The Chinese claims to the Japanese-occupied islands have resulted in a counter-movement in Japan by some politicians to amend their constitution to allow them to possess nuclear weapons (mainly to deter a potential Chinese nuclear threat).


Cai returned to Japan to make nuclear power the subject of his art in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The challenge for him was to make the invisible visible. “The problem is that you cannot see all the radioactive waves the way you can see the smoke left behind by gunpowder,” he explains. He found a somewhat terrifying but creepily beautiful way of making the invisible visible. “I was there to help the inhabitants plant lots and lots of cherry blossom [trees].” Densely packed together so they can be seen from outer space. He’s got 2,000 so far but wants to eventually plant 100,000. What he really seems to hope will happen is that the cherry blossoms will slowly mutate from the radioactivity in the soil, these varied mutations being a way of making visible the invisible poisoning of nature by human nature, a twisted artistic tribute to the mangled beauty that had been ravaged and could be reborn in strange ways.

It’s a breathtaking idea. I’m not sure I’d want to find myself lost in that twisted mutant forest, though I’m sure it would heighten the consciousness of anyone who ventures in or even sees it from a distance.

If it proceeds, he will have found a way to express tragedy through visual art inscribed on the planet, inscribed in the plants’ DNA. It may be a conceptual rather than strictly biological vision. “Some mysteries are meant to be [discovered],” he says, “Some are meant to be heaven’s secrets.”

I’m not exactly clear which is which, but Cai adds that “I try to use my art as a channel of communication between man and nature; man and the universe. Who knows where this channel brings you?”

I ask him what channel brought him to America in the mid-1990s (although he’s frequently traveling all over the world to blow things up). He says that while he was in Japan he learned about recent developments in American art, including the work of people he came to admire, like Robert Smithson, who had made grand earth-altering landscape projects like Spiral Jetty in the American desert. But the real reason he resolved to move to the United States was “because of NASA,” he says. “I was attracted to anything that would bring me closer to the universe—and the universe closer to me.”

He says that what continues to fascinate him about America are its contradictions. “I wanted to live and work in a country that is most problematic in the 20th century,” he says, “and offer a completely different point of view.”

So I ask him, having looked at civilizations from both sides now, from East and West, does he have any lessons that Westerners can learn from the East?


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