Cai Guo-Qiang | Explosions in the Eternal Sky

Via Issue 188, The Eternal Flame Issue!

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

No items found.

Styled by

No items found.
No items found.
Cai Guo-Qiang. When The Sky Blooms With Sakura Commissioned By Anthony Vaccarello For Saint Laurent.

A flare, a thundering crack, a flash of sputtering light moving in unpredictable synchronicity. Did I really see that? And suddenly, grays and reds and oranges and blues appear. Smoke begins to trace the paths of the energy witnessed. A plume, growing larger, power and frenzy wanes and wafts overhead, eventually melding into the sky like clouds gracefully meandering over the horizon. It is in this nexus and exploration of power, energy, the unseen, and the eternal that artist Cai Guo-Qiang finds himself.

Born in 1957 in Quanzhou, China, Cai grew up surrounded by sparks waiting to alight. From a moment of societal friction in his home country to the fireworks that lit the sky to mark celebrations in his hometown, to an upbringing as the son of a traditional calligrapher and book merchant at home, coming together to spark his own big bang. Cai went on to study stage design in Shanghai, graduating as a new school of Chinese artists was emerging in the mid-80s.

It was during this time that Cai began to experiment with gunpowder in his artwork. Spreading gunpowder—a substance steeped in historical significance—onto paper, guided by fuses, cardboard stencils, and natural elements like leaves and rocks, ignited with a flash, creating searing patterns marked by power and spontaneity. Cai’s artistic exploration eventually took the artist to Japan, where he lived for nine years, continuing his experiments in gunpowder, exploring themes from the cosmos, to Buddhist philosophy, mythology, and might through his practice.

Cai Guo-Qiang. When The Sky Blooms With Sakura Commissioned By Anthony Vaccarello For Saint Laurent.

 During this period Cai staged his first “explosion event,” the name he gives to site-specific firework installations; equal parts whimsy and ruination across the sky. Cai, who has lived and worked in the Greater New York area since 1995, has made a name for his explosion events, installations, and works on paper. His work has been displayed at major institutions around the globe, from the Uffizi to the Venice Biennale, Tate London, the Guggenheim, and MoMA.

In Cai’s latest project, with the fire-starting support of SAINT LAURENT, the artist staged an explosion event, When the Sky Blooms with Sakura, along with an expansive solo exhibition, Ramble in the CosmosFrom Primeval Fireball Onward, at the National Art Center, Tokyo. The daytime fireworks event—towering streams, 400 feet high of 40,000 fireworks— took place on the beaches of Iwaki, a region ravaged by the tsunami of 2011 and the ensuing Fukushima Nuclear disaster. The performance and exhibition were all the more impactful given this was the same shoreline the artist looked out over while living in the region, and the site of one of his first explosive events, some 30 years prior.

At the core of Ramble in the Cosmos, the artist brings together work from throughout his career to explore themes of the unseen. The show is underpinned by two large-scale installations, a recreation of Primeval Fireball, with new work on glass, as well as Encounter with the Unknown, an expansive kinetic LED installation. Throughout the exhibition and exploring the enormity of the universe and its meaning, our existence is juxtaposed with our collective humanity, an eternal flame for all to see.

Cai Guo-Qiang. During The Creation Of Fetus Movement Ii: Project For Extraterrestrials No. 9, (1991). Photo Courtesy Cai Studio.

I tend to think of fireworks as powerfully fleeting. How do you think about the ephemeral in your work and in the context of fine art?
Eternity and forever are not synonyms in Chinese. Eternity transcends time, while forever exists within time. When engaging in dialogue with eternity through art, it is important not to attempt to consider it from a fixed perspective of forever. Instead, one should grasp the present moment to perceive the mysteries of eternity within fleeting chaos.

The use of gunpowder is uncontrollable, just like life itself. When the Sky Blooms with Sakura, the first daytime fireworks I realized in Japan, did not just disappear in an instant, but transformed into smoke and were influenced by various factors such as wind and air pressure. That’s where their charm lies—in this ephemerality. Earthquakes, pandemics, and hardships are not permanent; they, too, pass with time. When confronted with challenges, it is important to have both change and permanence. When artists create their works, they always seek change, but at the same time, they also cherish what is eternal and unchanging.

Tell me about your own personal “Big Bang.” What factors in your early life lit the fuse of your creative genesis?
I am intrigued and fascinated by the explosive energy that gunpowder brings. It holds great significance for me. People often think that I enjoy fireworks, but, what I truly appreciate is the pure, abstract, unexpected, and uncontrollable energy of explosions—a fascination with chaos.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1986, I not only delved into the true essence of Eastern culture but also found myself bewildered and fascinated by the complexities of modern society and contemporary art. Amidst this daze, I stumbled upon numerous beautifully crafted introductions to the development of cosmology while browsing through a bookstore. This discovery left me exhilarated! The intertwining of time and space and the merging of different influences naturally connected to my long-standing interest in the unseen world, a fascination I’ve had since my childhood for cosmic energies and starry skies.

At that time, Japan was reflecting on a century of modernization and globalization, which was largely influenced by Westernization. Therefore, the binary division between East and West, including a never-ending comparison in contemporary art, inspired and propelled significant leaps in my artistic practice and methodology. In 1991, I held a solo exhibition titled Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects at P3 art and environment in Tokyo, which can be considered as a milestone for my time in Japan, and even for my entire artistic career. The exhibition revolved around engaging in a dialogue with the universe and the unseen world, expanding my artistic journey within a larger cosmic and temporal framework. 

Exhibition View At The National Art Center, Tokyo, 2023. Photo Courtesy Of Saint Laurent.

Tell us about your decision and the significance of realizing When the Sky Blooms with Sakura at the same site as your previous work in Iwaki 30 years ago?
In July 1993, I arrived at Yotsukura to prepare for my upcoming solo exhibition at the Iwaki City Art Museum. On the eve of the exhibition opening, I realized the explosion project, The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14, together with residents of Iwaki. On the pitch-black ocean surface, we lit up a 5,000-meter-long line of gunpowder fuse, using the flash from the explosions to outline the contours of the earth. The spirit of the artwork’s dialogue with the universe resonated with the Iwaki community, inspiring residents to participate by contributing 1,000 Yen per gunpowder fuse meter. They even initiated a collective action of turning off lights in every household during the event, to make the earth’s outline more beautiful for the universe to witness.

Over the next thirty years, I set sail together with my Iwaki friends, starting from a small fishing village and on to the world. They have helped me bring several artworks to fruition around the world. Over the years, we have witnessed each other’s hair becoming gray and our movements less nimble. This long-lasting friendship conveyed through art, has transcended the political and historical differences between nations.

Over a decade ago, after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and particularly the resulting nuclear disaster in Japan, I auctioned off my artwork to support the disaster relief efforts in Iwaki. However, instead of using the funds for immediate relief, my friends in Iwaki initiated the Project to Plant Ten Thousand Cherry Blossom Trees. It was a gesture of remorse on behalf of their generation for constructing the nuclear power plants, and a commitment to leave a homeland blooming with cherry blossoms for future generations. Therefore, my daytime fireworks also serve as a response and tribute to the spirit of those friends who, like “Yu Gong,” the Chinese figure in a fable miracle, moved mountains with their determination.

When the Sky Blooms with Sakura is a testament to my enduring friendship with Iwaki, a commemoration for the victims and the destruction wrought by the 2011 Japan earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and a tribute to the awe-inspiring power of nature. Furthermore, it symbolizes a call for rebirth, drawing upon Eastern philosophical thinking, amidst the ongoing global challenges faced by humanity emerging from the shadows of the pandemic to inspire an indomitable spirit in the face of adversity and convey a theme of hope.

How do you think about fire as being both a destructive force as well as one of transformation and rebirth? 

It is well known that gunpowder, as an explosive force, can be used for war and violence, but also for dazzling fireworks on peaceful nights. In my exploration, I integrate the energy of gunpowder with the natural forces of water, air, and mountains to be in dialogue with nature and the human spirit, while juxtaposing the fragility of materials like paper and glass with the destructive power of gunpowder, presenting a beauty born from explosions. Perhaps, just as in the philosophy of Laozi, energy comes from nature and disappears back into nature, allowing for an integration of art with the cycle of life and the rise and fall of the universe. Borrowing from nature makes one infinite, makes art infinite.

Cai Guo-Qiang. Frolicking On Ice In The Galaxy, (2020).Gunpowder On Glass And Mirror, 205 X 915 Cm. Photo Bywen-You Cai, Courtesy Cai Studio.

Tell us about how this partnership with SAINT LAURENT came to be.
I recall when the CEO Francesca asked me what project they could support, I mentioned that 2024 was perhaps a possibility, during the Paris Olympics at the Pompidou Center. Instead, she asked, “What about 2023?” I was deeply moved. I responded, “How about Japan? At The National Art Center and on the coast of Iwaki.” She said, “That would be perfect because Japanese culture also deeply influenced SAINT LAURENT.” I want to express my gratitude to Creative Director Anthony, who not only inherited the tradition of collaboration between SAINT LAURENT and different artists but who also boldly initiated a revolutionary commitment to creative excellence. 

What draws you to the unseen and unknown? How do you think about these boundaries in the context of your personal life and work?
For decades, I have been deeply fascinated by the wider universe and the unseen world, including feng shui and astrology and the ancient Eastern philosophies behind them. I have also held a long-term interest in science and technology as contemporary approaches to understanding our infinite universe. 

My cultural values and methodology encompass not only the principles of yin and yang, the law of opposites, destruction, and construction found in the I Ching (“Book of Changes” by Laozi), but also the harmonious and inclusive spirit of The Doctrine of the Mean (by the grandson of Confucius). Both life and art pay attention to feng shui and grandeur. From every blade of grass to the cycle of life and death and the imagination of heaven...I believe in the unseen world and want to believe in our ancestors, including my departed grandmother, who have souls within the incomprehensible dark energy that makes up 95% of the universe. 

Gunpowder was invented by ancient Chinese people in their search for immortality. Its Chinese name, “fire’s medicine,” implies its healing effect. By using gunpowder as a medium in my art, I visualize the flow of energy from the unseen world. The use of gunpowder is influenced by natural factors such as weather, temperature, and humidity. There are numerous uncertainties, but this in itself is also a dialogue with nature and the unseen world.

After 2015, with the passing of my grandmother and parents, I actively returned to exploring invisible forces and the unseen world. Recently, my new works consisting of explosions on glass and mirrors have also continued my exploration of spirituality and illusions.

How do you think about scale with regard to your work?

My exhibition, Ramble in the CosmosFrom Primeval Fireball Onward, at the National Art Center, Tokyo, begins with select works from the period of my life when I was residing in my hometown of Quanzhou. Small matchboxes atop which my father painted landscapes are the first works in this section. My father’s matchboxes are not large, but within a few inches, there are boundless horizons. What is art? What is the significance of a grand scale? I am always reminded of this, as many of my works are indeed very large in scale…

I took the opportunity of this solo exhibition to revisit my diaries from the late 80s to early 90s in Japan. Although I was living poorly in a small apartment in Itabashi with a three-tatami mat kitchen, I was very close to the universe at that time. My journal entries record how I thought through the perspective of an extraterrestrial, thinking and expressing from a viewpoint and grand scale of the universe. 

Cai Guo-Qiang. Fetus Movementii: Project For Extraterrestrials No. 9 1991 Gunpowder And Ink On Paper, Panel 200 X 680 Cm.Collection Of Museum Of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

Written by Bennett DiDonna

No items found.
No items found.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Flaunt Magazine, Bennett DiDonna, The Eternal Flame Issue, Saint Laurent, The National Art Center Tokyo, When The Sky Blooms With Sakura, Anthony Vaccarello,