Art & Photography

Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s work has taken many forms, but consistently returns to a sense of place and ephemeral explosions of beauty. We revisit his career around his collaboration with Saint Laurent, ‘When the Sky Blooms with Sakura’

‘When The Sky Blooms With Sakura’ daytime fireworks commissioned by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent Photography Kenryou Gu, Courtesy Cai Studio

Puffs of pigment leap into the air, the seed of a cloud, an idea feathering out. Airy waves erupt, a forest of trees, a collection of earthborn stars bursting, the colours of the sunset caught in a spiral scattered across the sky.

Transient, ephemeral, evanescent: energy is Cai Guo-Qiang’s instrument. Today, as one of China’s best-known artists, his performances have been viewed by thousands of people around the world (including the spectacular opening displays for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics). His latest, ‘When the Sky Blooms with Sakura’, is the first of its kind in Japan. Sakura is Japanese for “cherry blossom,” derived from saku which means both to bloom and to smile or laugh. The wordplay is key to the work that blossomed across the sky in shades of pink and orange at midday on the 29th of June 2023. 

Photography Masatoshi Tatsumi, courtesy Cai Studio

Commissioned by the luxury fashion house Saint Laurent, the daytime fireworks marked the opening of ‘Ramble in the Cosmos – From Primeval Fireball Onward’ at the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT). “People think I like fireworks but I actually like explosions,” Cai notes, “with their pure, abstract, unexpected and uncontrollable energy, an obsession with chaos.” As the exhibition’s title suggests, the retrospective weaves through Cai’s practice investigating the constructive and deconstructive potentials of explosions, while the event itself provided a moment of reflection for the artist, staged on a coastline he once called home, and where he had performed 29 years ago.

That artwork from 1994 was simple, almost surgical: ‘The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14’, lasted just one minute and 40 seconds. Six gunpowder fuses spanning a total length of 30,000m erupted across the night horizon of the ocean facing Iwaki, Fukushima. People living in the city collaborated by turning off their lights, “so the extraterrestrials would see the curve of the Earth from afar”. In returning to the same stretch of land and water, we’re able to see with clarity how Cai’s artistic practice has evolved, together with his relationship to Iwaki. His earlier work sought to echo the lines of the earth, exaggerating and enhancing the natural world. In this new piece we find instead the artist turning to another canvas lying empty before him: the atmosphere itself.

Photography Huafang Lee, courtesy Cai Studio

The towering pillars of pigmented smoke making up this latest half-hour performance came from a staggering 40,000 fireworks. Launched upon the beach they created a surreal bridge between sea and sky, a vast 400m-wide and 120m-high spectacle, shifting through a series of dramatic white and black waves in memory of the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 before blooming into resplendent colour: from sadness to joy. The subject speaks to the landscape of the work, echoing the earth-bound project initiated by Cai’s friends in Iwaki after the earthquake and carried out with his support: to plant 10,000 cherry blossom trees as a means of envisioning a future where the contaminated land becomes a vibrant pink sea.

Yet this vast pyrotechnic display is part of a much longer narrative for the artist, one that first began with experimentations of “drawing” with gunpowder in his hometown, Quanzhou. Born in 1957, the artist grew up in the port town looking out to Taiwan. The ocean’s horizon would, in the artist’s own words, “ignite my imagination”. The word ignite is no accident; soon the upheaval and violence of the cultural revolution in China and conflict with Taiwan would come to dominate the landscape of his childhood, both emotionally and physically. Living directly across from the warring state he would hear the gunfire every day.

“Making art is not to liberate society in the first place, but to liberate oneself,” Cai asserts. Through his art he took control of the element that overwhelmed his childhood, repurposing fear into joy, private pain into public beauty. On his works on paper we see trails of gunpowder splinter out into floral motifs, everything from abstract forms to figurative scenes, the central motif that a new creation is brought forth from the act and materials of destruction. “It’s actually another type of cure for my childhood,” he once said, “it purges the violence and destruction from this society and this era into something beautiful.” In gunpowder the artist found a release, the perfect tool to break away from conventions. “It freed me from the social constructions at the time.” The force of these small eruptions set him free, energy unveiled as an essential tool.

Moving to Japan in 1986 inevitably confronted him with the living memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impact of which could not help but inform his practice as his explorations evolved in scale and form. At one point in 1994 he even used the Hiroshima Central Park near the A-Bomb Dome as a site for his artwork ‘The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16’. The 30-second spectacle brought together 2,000m of fuse, 3kg of gunpowder, and 114 helium balloons to bring the wonders of a collapsing star into the fabric of our own world just for a moment. This work is one of many “projects for extraterrestrials” the artist has conceived for a double audience, one on earth, another far away. Cai has spoken often about his desire to create “a dialogue with the universe”, creating artworks that are not merely for show but that seek to tap into some greater power. “Art is my time-space tunnel,” he says, “allowing me to travel through which the invisible world communicates with the energy from the unseen world.” Art becomes a portal, a means of puncturing the line between visible and invisible worlds, but how to harness the energy that lies latent within these spaces? With explosions Cai seeks the answer. One event ‘Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters’ (1993), saw the artist detonate a six-mile train of explosives to visually expand the monumental construction by the Ming dynasty for 15 minutes. There’s something about this that feels alluringly ancient, Cai cast as a modern Prometheus, fire itself a sacred thing.

When he moved to New York in 1995, where to this day he now lives and works, a change occurred. At the 1999 edition of the Venice Biennale of Arts he won the Golden Lion Award for a quieter, more insidious form of destruction. His striking clay statues that greeted the audience remained unfired, meaning that the material slowly disintegrated in front of the public, cracking as time went on and falling to pieces: not a bang, but a whimper. In this latest performance a shadow of this focus on the aftermath can be found, the radiance of the ripples mirroring how energy lingers in the air, how its impact lives on like a seed taking root.

“Sometimes I have to wait for the work to magically appear on its own, to startle me.” Cai reflects, “It’s not only up to me, but comes in magical moments, when I intersect with myself and gunpowder, with nature and the unseen world to manifest.” The universe started with a bang, that first great implosion of energy that set human life into motion. In Cai’s work we find the memory of this pulse in every start, every shiver. In each explosion there’s a counterpoint to pain, a quest to unearth childish joy and play. “I am a fun artist,” Cai once declared, “like a little boy who never grows up.” Yet for those who know the artist’s past, this Peter Pan-like image holds within it residual trauma. In each explosive artwork the artist relives his past, enacting and reworking the sounds of his childhood, interrogating the forces of the universe.

Yet time passes. Cai knows that the reverberations of those sounds have dictated much of his life and art, as the echoes of the past surge into the present. It’s in the aftermath where the real effect unfurls; it’s the silence after the storm, the way the smoke spreads its wings across the sky when left to its own devices: part of the performance that not even the artist can control. An art, as he says, that brings “infinite surprises…first of all, to oneself!”

This article is taken from Port issue 33. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here