Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most prominent living Chinese artists. Trained in theatre design, in 1999 he won the International Prize at the 48th Venice Biennale. He is best known for his firework-based set-piece installations and for drawings made using ink and gunpowder. In November, a set of 14 untitled drawings by the artist sold at Christie’s, Hong Kong, for £9.5m ($19.1m)—setting a new record for a Chinese contemporary artist at auction. Next month the Guggenheim in New York, will host Cai’s first major retrospective, “I Want to Believe”. The show will coincide with the publication of a limited edition, potentially self-combusting book (nine copies only) entitled Danger Book: Suicide Fireworks, published by Ivory Press and personally annotated by the artist. Cai is currently also serving as artistic director of visual and special effects for the Beijing Olympics this summer alongside film-makers Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou who are artistic consultants. His compatriot, artist Ai Weiwei who collaborated on the design of the Olympic “bird’s nest” stadium in Beijing with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, has now disassociated himself from the event, referring to China’s “disgusting” political conditions. Cai declined to answer our questions about Ai Weiwei’s statement or the growing international lobby for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest at the human rights abuses within China and the regime’s support for the Sudanese government.
The Art Newspaper: Your retrospective at the Guggenheim is called “I Want to Believe”. What does it refer to?
Cai Guo-Qiang: The title is based on my childhood curiosity. I doubted everything, but underneath I had a sort of expectation and aspiration.
TAN: Your father was a historian and landscape painter who also practised calligraphy. Did you emulate him in your youth?
CG-Q: I was more of a rebellious type. As a teenager I was immersed in martial arts and even starred in some kung fu films. At the same time my father introduced me to 5,000 years of Chinese poetry, paintings and literature at a time when the [Communist] Party forbade it. I understood quickly the value of the underground. I was always very unwilling to align myself to any particular group. My peers were producing politically pointed Pop paintings and installations. I refused western influences and hiked to northwest China near Tibet, visiting archaeological sites, studying nature and painting portraits of people I met.
TAN: What was your idea of an artist?
CG-Q: When I was a child, the Chinese government did not allow citizens to buy flowers because it was a very bourgeois thing, but since my hometown of Guangzhou was far from the capital, I could buy flowers from farmers and go home and paint them. I associated this bourgeois act with being an artist. I didn’t want a nine-to-five job. I wanted to live freely.
TAN: In China you started experimenting with gunpowder in the making of art. Was this a way of expressing yourself with no fears or limits?
CG-Q: Gunpowder is a spontaneous, unpredictable and uncontrollable medium. The more you learn to control it, the more obsessed you become with the material. It is like making love with your husband or wife. The outcome is unpredictable and the same results are never guaranteed. Furthermore, in using gunpowder I can explore all my concerns: the relation to notions of spirituality as well as an interest in spectacle and entertainment, and the transformation of certain energies—such as violent explosions—into beauty and a kind of poetry. An artist should be like an alchemist using poison against poison, which is very much a philosophy from Chinese medicine. Turning something bad into something good…countering the force. It’s the whole idea of the alchemist, using dirt, dust, and getting gold out of it. From gunpowder, from its very essence, you can see so much of the power of the universe—how we came to be. You can express these grand ideas about the cosmos.
TAN: Did using gunpowder allow you more creative freedom?
CG-Q: Initially I began working with gunpowder to foster spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic traditions and social climate in China at the time. Using gunpowder and making burn drawings were an extension of my childhood dream of being a painter. Also from my childhood I remember the sound of fireworks going off. In my hometown, every significant social occasion of any kind, good or bad—weddings, funerals, the birth of a baby, a new home—is marked by the use of fireworks. They even use fireworks when they elect Communist party officials, or after someone delivers a speech. Fireworks are like the town crier, announcing whatever’s going on. I also remember the sound of artillery fire from a nearby army base directed at Taiwan. Gunpowder in Chinese means “fire-medicine”, it’s potentially therapeutic.
TAN: In 1986 you moved to Japan. Did you find greater artistic freedom there?
CG-Q: In Japan I did find and enjoy artistic freedom, but the catch is that you still need to be given the opportunity to do so. The contrast between China and Japan is that in China, it was easy to access materials—such as gunpowder—but there was less artistic freedom. In Japan, there was more freedom, but the materials were harder to find.
TAN: Since 1995 you have lived mainly in New York. What have you learned in that city? You still do not speak much English after all this time. Would it not help you to integrate?
CG-Q: New York is like a global square where I have the possibility of running into my friends from all corners of the world at any time. Not being able to speak English has been one of the biggest frustrations of my life.
TAN: Why did you move there?
CG-Q: The opportunity that brought me to New York was a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to participate in a year-long residency at PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, as a representative of Japan.
TAN: Your Guggenheim exhibition will travel to Beijing to coincide with the Olympic Games, where you are in charge of visual and special effects. What themes will be presented in the opening ceremony and how do you define the role of an artist in the Olympic Games? What are your priorities?
CG-Q: It’s not an easy undertaking, but it’s absolutely necessary. The Olympics combine the entire country’s efforts, and can do a lot of previously unimaginable things. You can display your work in front of an audience of billions, but at the same time it can feel like you’re making the work for yourself. Through this event, one can contemplate and better understand what “Chinese culture” is. One needs to think about the past, present, and future of China and its relationship with the world. You can use this platform to tackle the topics of ritual and ceremony. In brief, it can be an opportunity for self-growth.
TAN: How tolerant and supportive are the authorities towards the new cultural and artistic boom?
CG-Q: The higher the level of the official, the broader their vision becomes. They tend to pursue newer things and are more ambitious and tolerant to new culture than their subordinates. The Chinese government has changed more drastically than it appears to the outside world.
TAN: Do you recognise the so-called new China that everybody is taking about, where changes are taking place at such great speed?
CG-Q: This new China is not changing that fast, and it’s not that serious a problem.
TAN: You are a consummate experimentalist who has combined traditional materials and methods from the east (from the historical and living cultural traditions of both China and Japan) with strategies from western art history. How important are these Chinese traditions for you?
CG-Q: Just like western art is important to westerners, Chinese traditions are important to me. However, while they are my origins and foundation, they are not my main purpose in making contemporary art. The main purpose in making art is to have fun and to redefine the nature of objects. Where are the limits when an object becomes a work of art? Making contemporary art can throw up obstacles but it does not worry me. I am eternally optimistic; I am Chinese.
TAN: Your new book, published by Ivory Press, is called Danger Book: Suicide Fireworks. Why?
CG-Q: It goes beyond what is traditionally regarded as a book. It’s more an art object containing drawings and gunpowder paintings. It will be on display at the Guggenheim in a special chapel. It is a book that fuses the opponents, life and death, with the ephemeral value of beauty.
TAN: But a danger to what?
CG-Q: I used gunpowder to draw pretty images of fireworks, but included in the design is the possibility of committing suicide. If the owner pulls the string that is attached to a bundle of matches, it ignites the gunpowder on the pages and explodes the book. Even if the owner does not pull the string, there will always be the potential for danger and thus he or she will always have a dangerous relationship with the book.
TAN: What was your biggest concern at the making of it?
CG-Q: I wanted to make something that was hard to possess permanently.
TAN: Is discipline the foundation of your life?
CG-Q: Perhaps it’s because I am disciplined that I chose gunpowder as a medium.
TAN: In your work, you deal constantly with the ephemeral. One year of work can disappear in 15 seconds. Do you ever feel frustrated by this?
CG-Q: I feel good with the volatile nature of gunpowder; I am looking for the unchanging through the always changing. Nature always changes but the fact of change—or evolution—never does. I also associate it with the discipline and spontaneity of calligraphy, that most honoured Chinese art form. In calligraphy the artist is a “perpetual amateur”. This is the model I identify with as an artist.
Translation by Alicia Lu and Anni Lin
Born: Guangzhou, China, 1957. Lives in New York
Education: Shanghai Drama Institute
Selected solo shows. 2006: Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin 2005: Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 2004: Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art 2003: Asia Society, New York
Coming up: “I Want to Believe” retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, New York, February-May