Explosion and spontaneity reign in Cai Guo-Qiang’s experiments with paint and gunpowder.
The artist's expansive practice is the subject of Netflix documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, released in 2016, and in 2007 he sold an original work for $9.3m USD at Christie's, Hong Kong.
With the whole world watching, Cai was the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Cai’s prolific output over the past three decades has carved his place defiantly into the future canon of art history. While living in Japan in the 1980s he began to experiment with explosions by firing rockets at his paintings. Gunpowder evoked celebration within traditional Chinese culture, as well as the violence and protest of the Cultural Revolution that he grew up in. The explosions connect him to a “spiritual, invisible world” beyond material explanation. Throughout his oeuvre, Cai has continued to distill terror into beauty. Inopportune Stage One (2004), installed in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda, shows a car bomb sequence: eight cars suspended from ceiling to floor with neon tubes jabbing out from each like a comic-book render of an explosion. This transformation of a traumatic event into an epic spectacle elucidates the inevitable discrepancies between the reality of violence, and its visual representation.
For Cai, there is no unworthy audience: the passer-by, the multi-millionaire collector and the Netflix-subscriber are all valued equally. At the time, his collaboration with the Chinese government for the 2008 Olympic Ceremony was criticised for diluting the political content of his practice. However, the artist's ability to work across so many platforms and engage such diverse audiences allows him to reach beyond the systems of power that art typically exists within. Working “from the inside” is his politics. Genuinely boundary-breaking, Cai’s work masterfully nurtures contradictions that not only coexist, but actively fuel one another - opening that gap to make the invisible seen.
“Using gunpowder as a medium became a way to liberate myself.” – Cai Guo-Qiang