Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957) Escalator: Explosion Project for Centre Pompidou

Big bang theory

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 6

Cai Guo-Qiang creates 'explosion events' using gunpowder and flame. Ron Rosenbaum meets this artist with a passion for pyrotechnics

Cai Guo-Qiang may be the only artist in human history who has had some one billion people gaze simultaneously at one of his works. The internationally-lauded explosives artist created the fireworks sculpture for the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 that was televised around the world. If you're one of the few earthlings who hasn't seen it, here's Cai's description: "The explosion event consisted of a series of 29 giant footprint fireworks, one for each Olympiad, over the Beijing skyline, leading to the National Olympic Stadium. The 29 footprints were fired in succession, traveling a total distance of 15 kilometers, or 9.3 miles, within a period of 63 seconds."

But a mere billion pairs of eyes is not enough for the Chinese-born artist's ambition. He's seeking additional viewers for his works, some of whom may have more than two eyes. I'm speaking of the aliens, the extraterrestrials that Cai tells me are the real target audience for his most monumental explosive work. These include huge flaming earth sculptures such as Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, in which Cai detonated a spectacular six-mile train of explosives, a fiery elongation of the Ming dynasty's most famous work. Meant to be seen from space, he wants to open "a dialog with the universe", he says.

His blazing 'crop circle' in Germany, modeled on those supposed extraterrestrial signs carved in wheat fields, called for 90 kilograms of gunpowder, 1,300 meters of fuses, one seismograph, plus an electroencephalograph and an electrocardiograph to monitor electrical activity in his brain and heart. The two medical devices were there to measure Cai's physiological and mental reactions as he stood in the center of the explosions to symbolize, he told me, that the echoes of the birth of the universe can still be felt in every molecule of every human cell.

Maybe there's the sly wink of a showman behind these interspatial aspirations, but Cai seems to be distinctive among the current crop of international art stars in that he produces projects that aren't about irony, or being ironic about irony, or being ironic about art about irony. He really wants to paint the heavens like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Only with gunpowder and flame.

Cai (as everyone calls him, pronouncing it 'Tsai') moved to America in the 1990s. At his spare East Village Manhattan studio with its stone lion guarding the big red door, we sit at a glass table flanked by wall-size wood screens: his gunpowder 'drawings'. These are large white surfaces upon which Cai has ignited gunpowder to make unexpectedly beautiful black traceries, an example of which is to be sold at Bonhams in Hong Kong. They form works of abstract art reminiscent of traditional Chinese calligraphy, or those negative telescopic photo prints of deep space in which the scattered stars and galaxies are black on white. Violence transformed into ethereal beauty.

Fit and younger-looking than his mid-50s, with a severe brush-cut of hair, Cai tells me about his childhood with the help of his translator. It is a story of profound family sorrow during the Cultural Revolution – and a "time bomb" in his house. "My family lived in Quanzhou, across the strait from Taiwan," he says, where it was routine to hear artillery batteries firing at the island which the mainland regime wanted to reincorporate into China.

"These were my first experiences of explosions. My father," Cai explains, "was a collector of rare books and manuscripts" – and adept at the delicate art of calligraphy. But when the Cultural Revolution began in the mid 1960s, Mao Zedong turned his millions of subjects against any sign of intellectual or elite practices, including any art or literature that was not propaganda.

'Intellectuals' were beaten, jailed or murdered by mobs and their works burned in pyres. "My father knew his books, scrolls and calligraphy were a time bomb in his house," Cai recalls. So he began burning his precious collection in the basement. "He had to do it at night, so that no one would know."

Cai tells me that his father later went into a strange self-exile, afraid that his reputation as a collector of books would lead to his death. He left home and took refuge in a ruined Buddhist nunnery where the last remaining 90-year-old devotee gave him sanctuary. "My father would take sticks and trace characters in puddles on the ground," Cai says. The calligraphy would disappear when the water evaporated, leaving behind, Cai once wrote, "invisible skeins of sorrow," although they seem to be inscribed on his son's memory and heart.

His father's art echoes in his son's – calligraphy in water and now in fire. In using deadly gunpowder, he is seeking to transform it into the ethereal art of calligraphy. Instead of his father's Marxism, Cai says, his great influence is Chinese Taoist spirituality. Feng shui, Qi Gong and Buddhism play a role as well, their roots intertwined. He has written of a shaman he knew as a youth who protected him, and of his search for shamans in other cultures. "Spiritual mediums," he believes, "channel between the material and the unseen world to a certain degree, as art does." And he sees his art serving as a similar kind of channel, linking ancient and modern, Eastern and Western sensibilities. Feng shui and quantum physics.

As a youth, he says, "I was unconsciously exposed to the ties between fireworks and the fate of humans, from the Chinese practice of setting off firecrackers at a birth, a death, a wedding." He sensed something in the fusion of matter and energy – perhaps a metaphor for mind and matter, humans and the universe – in these explosions.

By the time of the political explosion of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Cai had left China and was in Japan, where "I discovered Western physics and astrophysics". And it was here that he found a focus also on the dark side of big bangs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He would later win the Hiroshima Art Prize for one of his most brilliant creations, The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too. For this, he dug a deep hole in the ground in the park near the target for the atomic bomb, then used 114 helium balloons at various heights to hold aloft 2,000 meters of fuse and three kilograms of gunpowder, which together formed a vast spiral to mimic the orbits of heavenly stars. The ignition kicked off from the highest and outermost point, burning inward and downward before disappearing in the 'black hole' in the center of the park.

Cai returned to Japan to make nuclear power the subject of his art in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. "The problem is that you cannot see all the radioactive waves the way you can see the smoke left behind by gunpowder," he explains. The project involves local people planting cherry blossom trees, densely packed together so they can be seen from outer space. Eventually, he wants to plant 100,000. He hopes the trees will slowly mutate from the invisible radioactivity in the soil, a way of making visible the invisible, in a twisted artistic tribute to the mangled beauty that had been ravaged and could be reborn in strange ways.

Earlier this year, Unmanned Nature (2008) was exhibited in the landscape gallery at the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery in Manchester – the first time that the installation had been shown outside Japan.

After our conversation, we join his colleagues for a lunch of many Eastern and Western dishes, while Cai tells me about his continuing 'dream' project, in which he goes around the world (next stop, Brazil) creating a "ladder to the sky" of fire, symbolizing his desire to invite extraterrestrials to descend, or for us to ascend to meet them. As I leave, I pat the head of the lion in the hope that the beast will protect us should Cai's aliens turn out to have less than benign intentions.

Ron Rosenbaum is a writer for Slate.

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Smithsonian magazine.

Related auctions