Internationally lauded “explosives artist” Cai Guo-Qiang has already amassed some stunning stats: He may be the only artist in human history who has had some one billion people gaze simultaneously at one of his artworks. You read that right, one billion. I’m talking about the worldwide televised “fireworks sculpture” that Cai Guo-Qiang—China-born, living in America now—created for the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. If you’re one of the few earthlings who hasn’t seen it, either live or online, 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.
Cai was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China. His father, Cai Ruiqin, was a calligrapher and traditional painter who worked in a bookstore. As a result, Cai Guo-Qiang was exposed early on to Western literature as well as traditional Chinese art forms.
“My father,” Cai says, “was a collector of rare books and manuscripts,” and an adept at the delicate art of calligraphy. But when the Cultural Revolution began in the mid-’60s, Mao Zedong turned his millions of subjects against anyone and any sign of intellectual or elite practices, including any art or literature that was not propaganda.
“Intellectuals” (meaning just about anyone who read, or even possessed, books) were beaten, jailed or murdered by mobs and all 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 grew up in a setting where explosions were common, whether they were the result of cannon blasts or celebratory fireworks. He also “saw gunpowder used in both good ways and bad, in destruction and reconstruction”. It seems that Cai has channeled his experiences and memories through his numerous gunpowder drawings and explosion events.
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 Hiroshima.
“Spiritual mediums,” he tells me, “channel between the material world and the unseen world to a certain degree similar to what 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.
> Daytime fireworks - Cai Guoqiang
> 2005 Black Rainbow by Cai Guo-Qiang