If you were to meet Cai Guo-Qiang you would never guess that he creates explosions for a living. A soft-spoken man, he is an artist whose preferred medium is gunpowder. His shows may be fiery but he is not, calmly incinerating swathes of hemp paper or giving the signal for hundreds of fireworks to snake up into the sky, as he has done many times in locations as disparate as France, Qatar and Argentina.
The witness to the temperament of this world-renowned artist is his daughter, Cai Wen-You. Her father is more likely found, not at ritzy art parties, but on the sofa, reading the newspaper in his long underwear. She has written a memoir about life with her father and how it has influenced her own artistic output, titled When You Make No Art.
She was not yet born when Cai Guo-Qiang began making art with combustible materials. He grew up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, during which his father ran a state-controlled bookstore in Quanzhou, which distributed banned books to party officials. As a result, the young Cai Guo-Qiang could read Western classics including Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He watched his father practise traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting.
One way he dealt with the uncertainties of the era was to submit himself to a rigorous, regimented schedule, with fixed times for exercise, study and painting (a discipline he still partly maintains, says Cai Wen-You). After completing their studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1985, he and his wife, Wu Hong Hong, migrated to Japan. He had his first shows in Tokyo in 1987, the second of them entitled Gunpowder Art. A third: Explosions and Space Holes, followed in 1989, the year after Cai Wen-You was born. In 1995, the family relocated to New York.
Left: Cai Guo-Qiang (pictured with daughter Wen-You) conducting a test for The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, New York, 1996. Photo by Hong Hong Wu, courtesy Cai Studio. Right: Cai Guo-Qiang at Cai Studio, New York, 2009 (Works pictured in background, left to right: Nobody Is Lonely at the Top; 2008; Two Peonies). Photo by Mark Mahaney
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Much of Cai Wen-You’s childhood was spent in museums and galleries: ‘Instead of dolls and figurines, I have memories of Giacometti sculptures,’ she tells me. And when she was growing up her father’s career claimed her attention even while he was away from home. ‘His Guggenheim retrospective [in 2008] was three blocks from my school, and he was in the art history textbooks I read at university,’ she says. Now, armed with her camera, she often documents her father’s works, and they sit side-by-side watching films together on long-haul flights.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s art is full of deliberate contradictions. His The Ninth Wave that sailed down the Huangpu River last year could be en-route to finding a brave new world but the animals on the ship are sick and close to death. His other installation in the Shanghai Power Station of Art, Silent Ink (2014), resembled an enormous oil spill. But the dark pool consisted of calligraphy ink, which has preserved Chinese thought and art for over a thousand years.
Homeland, Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder drawing, was ignited in Shanghai on 25 September 2013 in celebration of Christie's inaugural auction in Mainland China
As for the medium on which he has made his name, as a boy he would be kept up by the sound of bombs soaring in both directions over the Taiwan Strait. His hometown of Quanzhou was a pyrotechnic production centre and classmates would come to school, their hands stained red from filling firecrackers. But he also refers to gunpowder as ‘a visual language that goes beyond nations’.
The early origins of gunpowder lie in an eighth century quest by Chinese alchemists to find the elixir of life and Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder paintings have a dual quality of creation and destruction. Fire consumes his carefully sprinkled gunpowder lines but it also resurrects them as fantastic, charred shapes. In his series, Century with Mushroom Clouds (1996), a baby mushroom cloud puffs its way up from his hand. It is completely innocuous, a comforting cumulus, but how can one not be reminded of 9/11, or of Hiroshima, especially when the backdrop is Manhattan’s skyline or a nuclear test site in Nevada?
‘He has been experimenting with gunpowder for more than 30 years,’ says Cai Wen-You, who helps him with on-site set-ups. ‘But since he always uses local gunpowder, the results can be unpredictable.’ In Cai Guo-Qiang’s most recent, tango-inspired show in Argentina, Sentinels of the Enchanted Valley, he used the normal amount of gunpowder on the first day but it didn’t burn. The next day he used more because he thought it would not ignite otherwise. When it did catch fire, the flames were more ferocious than anyone expected. It was the first such incident in many years. ‘He sees each work, whatever the outcome, as part of his experience with the local culture’, explains Cai Wen-You. ‘Because of what happened with that work, he named the show Impromptu.’
Installation view of Silent Ink, Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2014. Photo by Zhang Feiyu, courtesy Cai Studio
Cai Wen-You’s book is concerned with her father’s work, her own art — she studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design — and what she describes as ‘trying to formulate my identity separately from my dad and my family’. At college, she recalls, ‘I felt my peers were progressing at a faster pace than me. But it wasn’t until the second year that I started thinking about how my upbringing could be affecting my work. My friends would simply go ahead and make their sculptures. Their ideas were naturally formed and therefore more successful than mine. I had seen so much fine art, I knew what it was supposed to look like, and I felt I wasn’t making it. Also, I wasn’t a black sheep; I didn’t have doctor or lawyer parents to rebel against. Being rebellious can be liberating. I was following a path laid out for me.’
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How does she navigate a relationship with someone that is so much part of her life, yet whose success looms over her constantly? ‘As a parent’, says Cai Wen-You, ‘you want your children to become self-sufficient and fulfilled, but you don’t want to lose them. My dad assumes I’ve been to every one of his exhibitions; and if, for whatever reason, I wasn’t at a particular one, he’ll ask “Why didn’t you come, it was such a great experience!” But I see those missed moments as little windows of time I kept for myself. He does love to have me around, but he has also told me that when he’s on-site he forgets I’m his daughter. I’m just one person in an entourage of studio workers, just a person that documents his project.’
Once she went on a pilgrimage with her father, following the path of his idol, El Greco. ‘He was curious about the dynamic of a daughter joining her father in such a quest,’ she says. ‘When I’m away on holiday, I’m always thinking of how I could document the place I’m in. And when my dad goes to museums he’s always looking at how artworks are exhibited and how it could inform his own installations. The main thing I’ve learnt from my dad is that work never ends — at least for him. And he doesn’t want it to end.’
When You Make No Art (能不能不艺术) will be published by Guangxi Normal University Press in July 2015
Main image at top: Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project, realized at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, December 11, 2009. Photo by Lonnie Graham, courtesy The Fabric Workshop and Museum
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