This is an artist who has mesmerised his audiences across the world for decades, by using a sorcerous mix of the disturbing, heavenly and explosive. He turned an unusual obsession in the eighties, gun powder (a Chinese invention) into an art form and has never looked back. It has become a language for Cai Guo-Qiang, a way to express his thoughts and feelings to the world.
In 1999, the world took notice, he won the Golden Lion at 48th Venice Biennale, and it cemented his place in the art world forever. Retrospectives, awards and honours too numerous to mention followed. Ever since then, the world has become his playground, capitalising on infinite budgets and movie set scope, he has put into place a trail of provocative projects, from turning the 2008 Beijing Olympics into his playground to simulating Noahs Ark on the Huangpu River in China.
However, it was in 2016 when his ultimate lifelong obsession, Sky Ladder, his most ambitious and grand of achievements was realised. A 1,650-foot ladder that extended up into the beyond. A documentary on Netflix was made about the process, and it’s well worth a watch. It is hard to put into words such an achievement which took the better part of two decades to realise. The work, like most of his others, is incredibly ephemeral, it never lasts longer than a couple of minutes, so the enjoyment forces you to be in the present.
That is apart from his more captivating visual works such as Head On (99 wolves) and Falling Back To Earth (see below). His work is a disarming investigation into mortality, climate, history and the cosmos. He is an artist for this moment, able to capture something within our zeitgeist – one which seems heavily out of balance and chaotic.
Through his translator, we sit down with this shy introverted builder of dreams at the most recent Nobel Prize conference in Stockholm to try and explore the more profound symbolism behind his work.
Cai Guo-Qiang | Fallen Blossoms Explosion Project 2009 | Philadelphia Museum of Art
I’ve never used a translator before. My ears are here, but my eyes are there. This is not meant to be a contentious or charged question, but I have also lived overseas and I found it immensely difficult to learn a language. You have been in New York for decades, have you found English quite difficult to learn?
Not really. It’s mostly it’s because I’m lazy. I do speak good Japanese, Chinese and my own local dialect.
So when you go out in New York and you’re interacting, do you use a translator all the time or do you find it easy to interact?
Of course, it’s easier if I can interact with people directly. I speak some English.
Ok well then – I will have to trust her, right?
So let’s start with a rather big question. I think your work is really inspiring. But what I really want to get to is this larger idea. Rather than just being an artist you are a patron or an ambassador of the human condition. Rather than just creating pretty things for people to look at. Would you agree?
Yes. There is no clear distinction between my art and life. Since my childhood in my hometown, I developed this keen interest in the cosmos, and I have been having this unique outlook on the cosmos which includes not only astrophysics but also my beliefs in the unseen world. In a sense, this is related to unseen areas in society.
"In childhood, I had already started to develop an interest in the unseen world."
Sky Ladder, 2017
What I’m getting at is that humans are very complex – like your art. On the surface, it’s very beautiful, but deep inside it’s very complex. Would you agree?
Since my childhood and adolescence, I was in and amongst a socialist society. Sometimes I would eavesdrop and listen to the enemy’s radio station secretly. In childhood, I had already started facing the control exerted by society and starting to develop an interest in the unseen world. On a deeper level, my art indeed has a relationship with society. There is a tension between my art and society.
I think chaos is something that is part of the human condition, but we do everything we can to push it away, it makes us feel uneasy. But your work, embraces it, almost invites chaos.
In my view my role is not to address or resolve the chaos, rather it’s to fully express the chaos. By nature, mankind tends to confront and resolve issues and paradoxes. But for me in my art, I try to express them, instead of resolving the issues or paradoxes.
Do people who view your art ever feel panic or anxiety?
Not that I can recall. Probably not many. Did you see my exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria that includes a large installation of ten thousand porcelain birds filled with explosives? The birds are suspended from the ceiling of the gallery above the terracotta warriors. Imagine a visitor enters the gallery and sees 10,000 porcelain birds filled with explosives floating above the terracotta warriors. Sometimes they look like a traditional Chinese landscape painting, like waterfalls and mountains in the backdrop.
What are you trying to express with these birds?
I want to express the shadow of empire. These birds for me are like the spirits of these terracotta warriors who come from underground to be above these warriors.
Cai Guo-Qiang | The Transient Landscape at NGV. Photograph © Eugene Hyland
When I see these birds, the first feeling that comes to me is that there is something overwhelmingly wrong or out of place. It does not seem natural. You see one bird, you see two birds, but to see ten thousand. Leading on from this, you’ve said that “playing with gunpowder sets me free.” what did you mean by this?
For me, gunpowder in a sense already expresses chaos.
Would you call yourself obsessive?
Obsessive about what?
Generally obsessive about your work?
I understand that I cannot control everything, so I try to coexist with the part that is beyond control.
If money was not an issue for you, and I can’t imagine money is that important to you, but if money was not an issue for you, what would you do?
I don’t think I’ll ever be in that position, that money is not an issue.
Is it something that you think about?
Money for me, when you need it, money is like your muscles. When you don’t need it then even if you have the money you’re fat.
"Some people feel that project even helped me send my one-hundred-year-old grandmother to another world."
Speaking about the ephemeral piece Sky Ladder
That’s an interesting analogy. So the money just sits there.
Yeah. If you have a lot of money in the bank without an idea of how to use it then it’s like fat.
Do you feel pressure, expectation and responsibility as a very famous artist now?
No, essentially that’s because I don’t constantly feel that I’m super famous. I’m simply busy occupied with the things that I’m interested in making. For example, I’m now preparing for my grand journey to a series of significant sites in medieval history. And I’m just realising a project in Mexico, under the theme of cosmos. It’s entitled An Encounter With The Unknown, reflecting on the five hundred years since the Spanish arrival in the land.
What is this?
This is the Mexico cosmos project. I created steps without a pyramid. A five-hundred stair structure.
And people can walk on this?
No, I install fireworks. Ten-thousand rockets.
That’s so cool! You’re like a child who plays with toys.
Yes, I often say I’m like a little boy.
It’s like everyone wants to be a child. I love this.
In my art, I try to connect the aliens and those ancient people.
Falling Back To Earth, Heritage 2013, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,
The Sky Ladder, which is probably your most famous work gained a lot of notoriety from this. When I look at the Sky Ladder, it feels deeply existential because it goes up, and then nowhere, and I feel like it represents humanity striving to go upwards and failing to reach the goal. You’ve said that it’s connected to the cosmos, infinity and life. Can you talk to me about this idea where humans are constantly striving to go up, but we can’t quite get there.
That’s a very interesting question. When I was young, I had a very strong desire to touch the clouds and pick the stars and I feel, even at my current age, I still have that urge. That desire to do the same thing. It’s true that mankind has been hoping to go upwards, to try to reach the moon, and now the goal is to explore more to Mars. So I imagine that many people after watching my sky ladder resonates with this urge to go upwards. Which in a sense is a childlike sentiment. I also created a small sculpture, a ladder that can sit on a table. A metal ladder. Did you watch the Sky Ladder documentary? You probably know that I tried for twenty-one years but failed on various occasions, but finally made it in my hometown.
It’s a very emotional project. I think it touches on something deep inside people, but we don’t know what that is.
Probably because it involves a variety of angles. Some people feel that project even helped me send my one-hundred-year-old grandmother to another world. So it’s open to interpretation. In my art, I try to realise what I myself hope to see in the world. What touches me myself, and then I try to realise it. So in a sense, I’m a relatively sensual person and relatively romantic.
Feature image by: Stefan Ruiz