Cai Guo-Qiang's Boom Year

Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang is the subject of a new retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Cai is known for the explosive quality of his works, both figuratively and literally.
By Barbara Pollack
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 24, 2008

NEW YORK It must be a first: An artist staging a massive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum while working on the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. But that's what's happening for Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese-born man who has cut a swath through international art circles with wit and gunpowder.

A few weeks before his exhibition at the Guggenheim, which opens this weekend, Cai was quietly commanding his troops as an army of assistants worked to assemble installations that will fill the museum. This weekend, he is scheduled to head back to Beijing to join the rest of the team working on the official festivities for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a spectacle that will be seen by billions.

When the Guggenheim show was in the planning stages, Cai (his full name is pronounced tsai gwo chang) said: "I want to make the museum feel like a fully packed shell that is ready to explode."

Standing beneath his artwork "Inopportune: Stage One," he seemed confident that he had achieved his goal. Nine white Chevrolets are arranged within the museum -- one on the ground floor, one on the top ramp and seven dangling in midair in the spiraling atrium of the Guggenheim -- with flashing lights coming from each vehicle as if the cars were exploding. Actually, according to the artist, the work should be viewed as the trajectory of one car ricocheting up through the center of the museum.

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art, said, "It's something we see every day in newspapers -- a car bomb -- but Cai turned this act of terror into an act of contemplation and beauty."

Although explosions are a major theme of Cai's work, the artist himself is quiet and self-assured. Born in Guangzhou in 1957, Cai left China in 1986 for Japan. He resettled in New York in 1995 to participate in an international art studies program. He established himself as an artist of international stature through an imaginative use of fireworks and through drawings created by detonating gunpowder on the surface of the paper. Yet, despite spending considerable time in the West, he never relinquished his Chinese identity or mastered English. (I brought along an interpreter to interview him.) The arc of his career can be seen in his numerous entries at the Venice Biennale, where he won the top prize, the Golden Lion, in 1999. Six years later, he returned to Venice as curator of the Chinese pavilion, even though he was still a resident of New York.

"Gunpowder can make people feel frightened or excited, a little bit like brushing the hand of a very pretty girl that you are almost afraid to touch," says Cai. His gunpowder drawings are often created as performances, setting off a series of bangs and leaving a pattern of marks, to the amazement of his audience. The Guggenheim show includes more than 30 drawings with a video demonstrating how he creates these works. One of these drawings, "APEC Ode to Joy," is part of a suite of 14 created to celebrate the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference in Shanghai in 2002 and sold for $9.5 million at Christie's Hong Kong in November. It set a record for a Chinese contemporary artist.

Cai's mastery of fireworks -- mesmerizing displays such as a 1,000-foot circle hovering above Central Park in 2003 or a tornado of lights swirling at the Kennedy Center in 2005 -- is by now known worldwide. The show will feature films of these artworks, including his 1993 "Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters," in which a blazing line of red fire flashes across the black desert at the end of the wall in northwestern China, a show for an audience of "extraterrestrials," as he put it at the time. "Fireworks are more dangerous than gunpowder," says the artist, "because to create an artwork from fireworks is very challenging so there is danger that you will only make something ordinary and expected." His talents in this field will certainly be tested by the Olympics, which is being overseen by "Hero" movie director Zhang Yimou. (Steven Spielberg resigned as artistic adviser to the ceremonies, citing China's role in the hostilities in Darfur; Cai had no comment on the issue.)

Cai is designing a computer-controlled fireworks display that will be executed by Fireworks by Grucci, the top U.S. company in the field and a longtime collaborator with Cai. Their lips are zipped about details of the project.

"My goal is to make the opening ceremony both modern-looking and artistic," Cai says, adding only: "Of course, we have a responsibility to the Olympics and to the Chinese government, but I also want to present myself as an artist and to present the fireworks as a fulfillment of my ideas."

The greatest surprise at the Guggenheim show is the extent to which Cai has created huge installations and sculptures in addition to his more ephemeral fireworks shows. There's a team of stuffed tigers, pierced with dozens of arrows, bounding up the first ramp and a pack of 99 wolves flinging themselves through the air at a glass wall. There's a river in one of the upstairs galleries, deep enough to support a raft that museum visitors will be allowed to ride. In another, an entire rotting boat is being assembled, plank by plank, by a team of Japanese fishermen flown in for the occasion. Perhaps the most astounding display will be "The Rent Collector's Courtyard," an exact re-creation of a 1960s propagandistic statue that depicts the evils perpetrated by a capitalist landlord. At the Guggenheim, there will be 50 figures made out of clay and assembled in public view over the course of the exhibition by Chinese craftsmen.

When "The Rent Collector's Courtyard" was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999, the Chinese artists who created the original artwork in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution threatened to sue Cai for copyright infringement. The case was dismissed, and Cai's interpretation is now acknowledged at the Sichuan Academy of Art in Chonqing where the original is on view. But this piece will not travel to Beijing when the retrospective opens there in May 2008. It is touchy for an artist, especially one who has lived abroad for so many years, to revisit the Cultural Revolution in such a public forum.

Still, the past four years have been something of a homecoming for Cai, who had his first solo show in mainland China in 2002 at the Shanghai Art Museum. His wife and two children still live in New York, but he is building a home in Beijing out of the ruins of a 19th-century house with a central courtyard; it's just a few blocks away from the Forbidden City. He also hopes to build his own museum in China.

But for now, all his concentration will go to the Olympic ceremonies, his most public artwork to date. "I am like a firecracker," he says. "A lot of people say I will make a big noise with the Olympics or with the Guggenheim show, but I don't think you will have to cover your ears."

Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibition I Want to Believe is at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through May 28. Information: or 212-423-3500.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company