Cai Guo-Qiang is a living icon; an Old Master of our time. Best known for distilling terror into beauty through his pioneering firework events and explosion paintings, Cai brought gunpowder to the summit of the contemporary art world. His prolific output over the past three decades, including solo shows at the Guggenheim Museum and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, has carved his place defiantly into the future canon of art history.
Living in Japan as a young Chinese artist in the 1980s, Cai began to experiment with gunpowder. As a medium, it evoked both celebration within traditional Chinese culture and also the violence and protest of the Cultural Revolution that Cai grew up in. He fired rockets at his paintings and lit gunpowder from underneath his work, merging his technical skill as a painter with the lawless mark of explosion. The result is a fervently contemporary aesthetic that speaks to his own cultural histories, as the son of a traditional Chinese calligrapher, and the adopted influence of Japanese art.
Cai’s experimentation with gunpowder developed into his trademark ‘ignition events’, including prodigious undertakings to draw patterns into the land with fire that evoked the ancient Peruvian Nasca Lines in both magnitude and impact. The godly scale of Cai’s work uncovers his preoccupation with transcending the visible world around us. As he describes, Cai’s relationship with his explosions connect him to a world beyond himself: “I do get somewhat nervous, but in the moment of ignition it seems to go beyond nerves, becoming an energy that is sudden, spiritual and also cosmic. A feeling of the invisible world is sparked within that instant”.
Cai’s rise to international fame has seen his work grow in accolade and ambition. His solo retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2009, Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe, was a show-stopping survey of his life’s work. Within it, Inopportune Stage One was a stand-out installation that transformed the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda into a car bomb sequence: eight cars suspended in an uneven spiral from ceiling to floor, with large clusters of thin flashing tubes jabbing out from the centre of each car like a comic book render of an explosion.
The dissemination of Cai’s work is vast and varied. He has worked with public museums, streaming platforms, governments, universities and in site-specific locations across the world. For Cai, there is no unworthy audience; the passer- by, the multi-millionaire collector and the Netflix-subscriber are all valued equally. Exhibitions at major international galleries and his collaboration with the Chinese government have been criticised for diluting and undermining the political content in his practice. However, his ability to work across so many platforms and engage such diverse audiences enables his work to reach beyond the systems of power that art exists within. Working “from the inside” is his politics. Without fail, Cai attends to complexity with thought, integrity and care: holding contradictions that do not only exist together but produce each other – opening that gap to make the invisible seen.