Cai Guo-Qiang is a living icon; an Old Master of our time. Distilling terror into beauty, Cai brought gunpowder to the summit of the contemporary art world.
Cai’s 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. In the 1980s, living in Japan as a young Chinese artist, Cai began to experiment with explosions.
- Work in collections inc. Guggenheim, MoMA, MOCA, Met Museum, Tate
- Subject of Netflix documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, 2016
- World’s most visited living artist exhibition, Da Vincis do Povo (1m visitors), 2013
- Solo retrospective at Guggenheim Museum, I Want to Believe, 2009
- Artistic Director of Opening & Closing Ceremonies for Beijing Olympics, 2008
- Contemporary Chinese auction record (Christie’s, $9.5m), 2007
He fired rockets at his paintings and lit fireworks from underneath his work, merging his technical skill as a painter with the lawless mark of explosion. For Cai, using gunpowder evoked both celebration within traditional Chinese culture, as well as the violence and protest of the Cultural Revolution that he grew up in. Cai’s experimentation with gunpowder developed into his trademark ‘ignition events:’ enormous, strategically curated explosions and firework displays like never seen before. This godly scale of Cai’s work speaks to his lifelong preoccupation with transcending the visible world around us. As Cai explains, his explosions connect him to a world beyond himself, an “invisible world” that is “spiritual,” “cosmic,” and—most of all—beyond material explanation.
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 (2004) was installed into the Guggenheim’s rotunda, transforming the iconic space 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. This transformation of a traumatic event into an epic and sensational work of art, elucidates the inevitable distance between the reality of violence, and its visual representation.
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 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. His genuinely boundary-breaking work masterfully nurtures contradictions that do not only exist together, but produce each other—opening that gap to make the invisible seen.
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