In late January, as the main atrium of the Guggenheim Museum was cleared and reduced to a vast white nautilus shell, workers were hoisting cars, juggling wolves and laying down a rattan riverbed for Cai Guo-Qiang’s impending retrospective. The show, which opened in February, marks the museum’s first survey devoted to a Chinese artist, as well as the debut of Alexandra Munroe, the museum’s curator of Asian art, who lifted the title, “I Want to Believe,” from a UFO poster for the popular 1990s TV drama, The X-Files, hanging in Cai’s downtown New York studio. Speaking Chinese and English to a journalist and Japanese to Munroe—a Japan specialist—and his technical assistants in the same breath, Cai was clearly the master of the many worlds his art inhabits.
One of the most internationally successful and visible artists born after the founding of the People’s Republic, Cai, now 51, is certainly worthy of the Guggenheim’s attention. His career began in the early 1990s with choreographed explosions at historical monuments and within urban infrastructure as well as with large-scale gunpowder drawings. Cai has since gone on to create massive fireworks displays in cities around the globe and breathtaking sculptural installations, combining a flair for spectacle with political commentary that can feel intensely searching or coolly ironic.
The installation Inopportune: Stage One, a grotesque characterization of a suicide bombing originally made for the cavernous galleries of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in late 2004, has become Cai’s mid-career calling card. Featuring a row of white cars stuck like porcupines with tubes of blinking LEDs and suspended from the ceiling enacting a “frame-by-frame” high-speed rollover, Inopportune is violently beautiful, a coalescence of Cai’s technical and thematic interests. With characteristic bravura, Cai has reinvented the work for the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright spiral, shifting it on a vertical axis to hurtle down upon visitors’ heads.
While Cai’s multi-national staff and the Guggenheim’s unionized installation crew hovered around him with blarring walkie-talkies uniformly hitched to their hips, he remained calm and unwired, his military crew cut framing an ageless, rock-hewn face. In reply to a question about why there are no direct references to or illustrations of sex in his works, Cai gently demurred, suggesting that the sheets of paper on which he laid his gunpowder in delicate traces in readiness for combustion were simply bed sheets: “You can take it from there.” In response to the suggestion that in Taoist terms, gunpowder, like semen, is a yang element that explodes in orgasmic cataclysm, immediately thereafter reverting to a yin state of cool repose and achieving a desirable balance in the process, Cai offered an imperial smile and a kindly “You can look at it that way if you wish.”
The curator, Munroe, counters that all of Cai’s work addresses war. In fact, Cai directly and indirectly touches upon almost every major act of political violence of the 20th and early 21st centuries, from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Taiwan’s ballistic stand-off with China, New York’s 9/11 and even the 2004 train bombings in Madrid. Though not immediately apparent in his works’ sensual rush, politics is just one of the many strata that further meditation reveals. One could push Munroe’s statement further to say Cai’s work encompasses the causes of war, the pain, cost and shame of war. Far from simply aping the mechanisms of destruction, the drama that unfolds in his installations and performances is complex and deeply humanistic.
Part of this has to do with Cai’s own biography. The son of a traditional painter and intellectual who published translations of foreign literature for the state, Cai was nine years old at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He credits his father with steeping him in traditional Chinese culture at home, developing his interest in Taoism, yin-yang theory, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture and, of course, painting. He later attended the Shanghai Drama Academy where he studied set design and dabbled in oil painting, the violin and martial arts films. Cai exhibited modestly at home and in 1986 went to Japan to study, commencing a peripatetic lifestyle that continues to this day.
Attracted to the Japanese, materials-based mono ha (“school of things”) group of the 1960s and 1970s, Cai earned his first big break through his study of and collaboration with Kawaguchi Tatsuo, a university lecturer and sculptor whose work deals with the dialectics of the visible and invisible. In 1990, Cai held his first solo show of gunpowder paintings and “explosive event” remnants at the Osaka Contemporary Art Center and began to exhibit on the international art circuit.
In his work with gunpowder, a material rich in potential allegory, Cai elaborates upon the cliché of this Chinese ur-invention. Over the course of two decades, he has extended his use of the chemical formula from its alchemical origins to a pigment, a biblically pregnant “burning brush,” a weapon and, finally, to the propellant in pyrotechnic shows barely distinguishable from municipal July 4 celebrations in America’s Midwest. Cai offers a variety of possible artistic solutions to the unresolved conundrum of Chinese modernization and Westernization, first articulated in the late 19th century as the dynastic system approached collapse and encapsulated in the bland formula: “Chinese essence, Western method.”
Cai’s first explosive event, Human Abode, Project for Extraterrestrials No. 1, was created for the “Tama River Fussa Outdoor Art Exhibition” near Tokyo in November 1989. The pyrotechnic intervention was the first in a series of dialogues with a fictive outer-space audience, a construct that served to both distance the actual spectators from the violence at hand and mirror the vagaries of human behavior. Erecting a simple square yurt with twigs, rope and fabric in a grassy park, Cai then destroyed it with gunpowder. The visual effect evoked the sensational images—still fresh in the international consciousness—of the makeshift tents Chinese student protestors erected in Tiananmen Square in June that were then fired upon by tanks and eventually plowed under. At the time, Cai posed the dilemma: “The explosions of gunpowder that have taken place on Earth have been mostly for war and environmental destruction under the name of development. How do extraterrestrials receive these human acts…humans now send out a different image of humans to the universe, which is not related to war or killing.”
All of Cai’s events are carefully done with the permission of local officials and concern for public safety, despite insinuations of transgression—as in one instance when he laid down a high-speed fuse along the tracks of the Japanese bullet train and set it alight when the train passed. For Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10: Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters (1993), he traced out a linear extension of the Great Wall of China near Jiayuguan in the western province of Gansu with 10 kilometers of fuse, claiming that when ignited, it was the only work of art visible—for the blink of an eye—from space. However, the work also references major events of the time, notably the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Iron Curtain. Later, Cai used gunpowder to reproduce mushroom clouds of various sizes, offering an indirect challenge to Chinese and other nuclear ambitions. But he also employs gunpowder combustion in Dada-like acts of indeterminacy, as a medium of divination that leaves its messages on screens, couture dresses and scrolls.
In addition to the eye-catching Inopportune, the Guggenheim retrospective includes a more subdued installation reflective of contemporary Chinese history. Cai first appropriated the propagandistic sculpture group entitled The Rent Collection Courtyard for the Venice Biennale in 1999, importing artisans from Sichuan to reproduce the work. The original, created at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1965 on the eve of the Cultural Revolution and consisting of 114 human figures and actual farm implements, was a didactic, exaggerated diorama of Marxist class struggle illustrating the onerous rental fees imposed by “feudal” landlords upon the disadvantaged peasants. At Venice, Cai’s hired team of sculptors recreated the work in front of the public for the first 10 days of exhibition. Cai intentionally left it incomplete and discarded its components after the close of the exhibition, directing attention from the historical subject matter to the ongoing process of manufacturing indoctrination, as well as to the transience of the ideology underpinning the social microcosm portrayed. The work remains poignant as a reminder of class differences and takes on new dimensions in its restaging at the Guggenheim. As the US grapples with heated presidential-election posturing and debates over immigration, Rent Collection superimposes the communist ideal of a classless society upon the capitalist belief in unlimited social mobility, revealing the failures of both ideologies when taken to extremes.
Details about Cai’s biggest project in China in two decades and the greatest challenge of his career, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in August, remain under wraps behind the closed doors of the International Olympic Committee. While addressing open-minded extraterrestrials, the international art world and perhaps four billion television viewers, Cai is implicitly bound by his bosses in Beijing, who may lift a longstanding ban on fireworks displays in the capital for the auspicious occasion. However, their noses will wrinkle if they sniff traces of freedom in the air.
But if the Guggenheim’s “I Want to Believe” is an indication of where Cai is coming from now, it’s a sure bet that in Beijing he will be going for gold. Cai uses visual and audio shock tactics to re-enact the popular nightmares of war, the space race, suicide car bombings. But in portraying acts of human hatred, he offers seekers a lyrical sanctuary from violent outcomes.