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Cai Guo-Qiang Photo

Cai Guo-Qiang

Chinese Painter, Installation, and Performance Artist

Movements and Styles: Postmodernism, Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Performance Art

Born: December 8, 1957 - Quanzhou, Fujian, China

Cai Guo-Qiang Timeline

Important Art by Cai Guo-Qiang

The below artworks are the most important by Cai Guo-Qiang - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self-Portrait: A Subjugated Soul (1985-1989)
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Self-Portrait: A Subjugated Soul (1985-1989)

Artwork description & Analysis: The work, almost two meters in height, portrays a dark human figure in an abstract, ochre, monochromatic aura - as if exploding out from the canvas. The blurry feel and absence of detail denotes an ethereal presence rather than a real human. It is, as the title suggests, a self-portrait of Cai's subjugated soul. It was painted when the artist was still living in China, during his mid-twenties, and is an example of his first explorations of gunpowder. For this piece, Cai mixed oil paint with gunpowder, creating both a defined and an undefined feel that results from the exploding particles.

He was drawn to the medium ever since his early childhood experiences with firecrackers. His interest also connects with various associations of the material such as its ability to harness natural forces, the fact that it is made from natural minerals, and the fact that it was traditionally used in Chinese medicine as a technique for healing (inflammation reduction and detoxification). In this regard, touching and using the material becomes a process of contact with nature, establishing a conversation and bridge with the natural world and spiritual dimension.

After moving to Japan, in 1986, the gunpowder experimentations continued. It was also in Japan that he realized that the scientific developments of physics were similar to Chinese Qi Gong cosmology, and that "The theory of yin and yang is paralleled in modern astrophysics as matter and antimatter, and, in electromagnetism, the plus and minus." This understanding connected the metaphysical concepts of Taoism he had originally been brought up in, with a broader more universal conception. In this regard, sustaining these early creations is also of metaphysical and cosmological significance.

The painting was retouched in 1989 to further express Cai's feelings of loneliness and the subtitle, A Subjugated Soul, was added. In a way, these initial works also carry within them a sense of poetry aiming to create a connection with the larger context of life by immersing man in a spiritual awareness. The work bears strong resemblance to Giacometti's infamous portraits that use a similar abstract language, color palette, and overall diffused immaterial presence. In a way, both artists aimed to capture the "vibration of life" that defined and composed human existence, representing the self as an ethereal presence.

Gunpowder and oil on canvas

Inopportune: Stage One (2004)
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Inopportune: Stage One (2004)

Artwork description & Analysis: This installation featured nine Ford Taurus cars positioned in a sequence to give the effect of a single car flipping through the air. The first and the last cars sat on the ground, implying a beginning and an end, while the others hovered, suspended by cables from the ceiling. The spectacle was strewn with lights emanating yellow, pink, fuscia, indigo, and purple, granting the scene a colorful kaleisdoscopic effect. The installation spanned 90 meters in length.

With its theatrical components, mainly derived from Cai's studies in stage design, the work was a reflection on the psychological aspects, cultural problems, and overall political climate that defines our daily lives. In this sense, the moving car acts as a metaphor for the momentum of destruction. It was part of a series of installations developed in the 2000s, where Cai explored social and political associations and meanings.

The installation also aimed to provoke a dialogue surrounding terrorist attacks, specifically the September 11 catastrophe in 2001 that profoundly affected Cai who was living and working in New York at the time. In this perspective the car can be seen as exploding, representing the unstable climate of terrorism and the unsetling atmosphere it bestows upon the world. "We live in a world full of terror, of discussion and fear of terror," claimed Cai. The installation posed these considerations while framed in a shockingly vulgar beauty, which is something the artist has been criticized for, work in which vast spectacle mutes out the underlying substance.

Installation of various cars with lights - Seattle Art Museum

BMoCA (Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art): Everything is Museum (2004)
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BMoCA (Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art): Everything is Museum (2004)

Artwork description & Analysis: This picture is of an art installation by Wang Wen-chih, an artist from Taiwan, at the BMoCA () created by Cai on Kinmen Island.

The Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art was an old military center, with a long history of bombing attacks, that held special meaning for Cai, since as a child, he used to hear the attacks from Quanzhou, a port city across the Taiwan Strait. By converting it into an art center or temporary museum space for the community, he transformed an area of destruction into one of construction. Cai invited 18 artists from China and Taiwan to create site specific artworks for the space, also welconing local children to collaborate. The work pictured here is by the exhibiting Taiwanese artist Wang Wen-chih whose installation, created with local craftsman, consists of a bamboo tower and a network of tunnels that promote movement, integration, and meditation. Wang claims that "[his] work searches for harmony after catastrophe or massive destruction."

The BMoCA museum is part of a larger group of social projects begun by Cai in the 1990s, that aimed to integrate art within the community. Cai was inspired by Joseph Beuys' philosophical ideas, and the belief that "everyone is an artist." Cai then created the Everything is a Museum franchise, which transforms abandoned spaces (such as bunkers or old pottery barns), into museums with the participation of the government and local artists. Acting as curator and organizer, Cai gives life to new cultural and artistic dialogues.

This concern with collective society can also be seen as a result of Cai's investigations into China's 'cultural and political memory.' Alexandra Munroe, art scholar and curator, explains that these projects embody Cai's 'utopian socialism,' reflecting "the allure of socialist memory and the idea of absolute faith in communitarian forces of historical progress," aspiring to "claim the public realm as a site for art of democratic empowerment."

- Permanent museum at the Guningtou Cihu Great Bunker, Nanshan Fortification, Tashan Battery, Shuito Village, Kinmen Island, Taiwan

Head on (2006)
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Head on (2006)

Artwork description & Analysis: Head On is an installation comprised of 99 wolf replicas caught in motion as they run in a pack into a glass wall. The wolves, in natural size, possess the vitality and sense of movement of real life. The placement of the animals represents a perpetual cycle in which they run, leap into a disastrous obstruction, get back up, circle around, and begin all over again.

Cai's aim was to make something that depicted a "type of collective behavior or collective heroism, tragic and brave." The wolf is a common universal mythological symbol associated with fearlessness. Since the wolf is a wild animal, it is also associated with danger and fear. In this context, it can be seen to symbolize an inherent predator nature in man and the blind confidence of collective action. In some interpretations of the work, the wolves can also be seen to represent humans who run blindly into their own self-sabotage. In this context, the work gains a social, cultural, and even philosophical meaning, perceived as a critique of society and an exposure of its senseless behaviors.

Another notorious work of this time was an installation of a dying tiger, suspended in mid-air, with arrows sticking out of its body, again, evoking themes of destruction, death, and pain, despite its beauty.

Installation of replicas of wolves (gauze, resin and hide) of variable dimensions - Deutsche Bank Collection

Footprints of History (2008)
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Footprints of History (2008)

Artwork description & Analysis: Footprints of History was an ephemeral art project and visual sculptural display, developed for the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2008. It was composed of 29 firework starbursts resembling giant footprints that crossed over the Beijing skyline. Some footprints wafted over and marked significant landmarks: Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Huangshan Mountains to name a few. The footprints eventually stopped at the National Olympic Stadium also known as the Birds Nest stadium. They were fired in succession making it seem as if a giant was literally walking across the sky. In total, they travelled over 15 kilometers during a span of 63 seconds.

The artist claims that he wanted to draw with fireworks in the sky. But the installation also symbolized that history had marched up to this significant moment in time. Over 34 million people watched the ceremony and the event was broadcasted worldwide, making this Cai's best-known work. Ironically, the artist has stated that rather than causing China to open more to the world, it seemed to have closed it more to the world after the Olympics. He garnered great criticism for his involvement with the games, as some viewed his participation as a commercially motivated commission rather than an authentic work of its own. Cai admitted that cooperating with the Chinese government for this project was not easy, yet argued, "Art should not be a tool of politics, but sometimes art can help make the political climate more open and help society become more free. In my own art, I try to use my personal voice and effort to enable some Chinese people to see the possibilities of another kind of China. A more open China."

For Cai, art does not play a role in teaching right or wrong but merely creates space for people to reflect upon things in a new light. He claims that, "With distance people can find meaning below the surface instead of taking the work at face value." Despite the idea that art can also carry political, social, and cultural associations, it is the desire to create this reflective distance that is at a center of Cai's creations.

After the opening ceremony the artist made a large gunpowder drawing, 33 meters in length and four in height, to commemorate the ephemeral installation in a more permanent manner.

Fireworks for 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony

Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project (2009)
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Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project (2009)

Artwork description & Analysis: This site-specific pyrotechnic, ephemeral artwork entitled Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project was created in 2009 as a commission for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist envisioned a lotus-like blossom, which, through the use of gunpowder, would bloom open during the course of a minute.

The flower, lit at sunset in front of a large audience, symbolized the artist's exhibition at the museum entitled Hua kai hua luo, derived from a classical Chinese proverb that speaks of the grave loss when a life ends unexpectedly. In this context, the flower alludes to some of the ongoing themes developed by Cai: ideas of loss, pain, and destruction embodied and manifested through beauty. This dichotomy and union of death and life denotes the metaphysical universal significance of man questioning his own place in the world.

In another perspective, the use of explosives relates to the atomic bomb of Hiroshima, and other major man-made catastrophes that have occurred in the world, emphasizing violence in a political way. These dialogues, where "violent explosions" are made "beautiful," also reflect that the artist, as he claims, is "like an alchemist, has the ability to transform certain energies, using poison against poison, using dirt and getting gold." In this regard, Munroe adds that "Cai's goal - to challenge, disrupt, and imbalance the center of modern and contemporary art - is perhaps itself an 'explosion' aimed at the entrenched status quo."

His site-specific installations share strong connections with the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They can also be seen to share affinities with the creations of Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has a profound theatrical and spatial idea of art making, as something that is ephemeral and that belongs to everyday life. And lastly, they relate to the theories proposed by Yves Klein that exerted a direct influence on the artist, for his conception of performance art.

Gunpowder fuse, metal net for gunpowder fuse and scaffolding installation

Odyssey (2010)
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Odyssey (2010)

Artwork description & Analysis: This large painting, 3 meters high and almost 50 meters in length, stretches across four walls of a room. It draws inspiration from classical Chinese painting, where idealized landscapes are a central theme.

It was made with gunpowder in a complex technique developed over the course of various years, beginning with Cai's time in Japan in 1985. However, the technique greatly evolved, and is now a multi-phase process. Whereas before Cai would paint with oil on the canvas, combining it with gunpowder in an experimental way, in these later works he only uses gunpowder in a highly systematic order and methodology. It involves first placing objects and stencil works of cardboard over a stretched large canvas on the floor that is then sprinkled with gunpowder in the negative spaces. This is then covered with large cardboard pieces, attached to fuses, weighed down with bricks to reduce the flow of oxygen, and then ignited with a fuse, making everything blow up. The artist claims that it is at this point that the work is closest to him, in a very personal and very physical way. "Before it explodes, you have absolutely no idea what it will look like," Cai explains, adding that it is like "experiencing fate." Cai then continues adding and exploding gunpowder at a micro scale, enhancing specific details of the work.

The imaginary landscape aims to create a reflection of the artist's relationship with the unseen world, relating to the energy of nature, his ancestors, and "with the entire galaxy and with tens of thousands of stories." In this sense, the work emphasizes the continuum of human history, conveying the idea of a universal time and the notion of eternity.

Cai's work, in a way, makes reference to the Arte Povera movement, especially its attack on the art establishment through the conception of a new type of art that is large in scale and that disregards traditional mediums, themes, traditions, and ideas. The fact that the work takes up the whole space of the gallery room can also be seen to resonate with the movement that often used unconventional gallery spaces in order to explore space itself. It can also be seen to relate to the social sculpture work of Joseph Beuys.

Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as 42 panel screens

Sky Ladder (2015)
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Sky Ladder (2015)

Artwork description & Analysis: Sky Ladder is a 1,650-foot (505 meters) tall ladder made from explosives. The structure is composed of a double-stranded firework connective wire suspended in the air from a hot air balloon, with horizontal wires linking the two sides, making up an incredibly lean and tall ladder. The half-kilometer staircase is lit up progressively in red tones, seeming to reach endlessly up into the darkness of night. In total, the performance lasts for 80 seconds.

The project was difficult to execute. Cai conceived it in 1994 and he attempted its execution in various locations, all of which were unsuccessful due to bad weather, bureaucracy, or safety concerns. He finally found the right location and conditions in Huiyu Island Harbor in Fujian province, his hometown. The vision for the project was always to create a ladder that stretched all the way up to heaven, connecting "the Earth with the universe." It is dedicated to his, at the time, 100 year old grandmother. Although she was in poor health and unable to see it in person, she was able to watch it broadcast before passing away a month later.

The ephemeral art installation is also intrinsically linked with the idea of immortality. Gunpowder, considered to be one of China's most significant contributions to the world, is traditionally bound up not only with medicine and healing, but also with the desire for immortality. As Cai explains, "They were actually looking for an elixir to make themselves immortal." Associated with this idea of immortality is also the concept of the transcendental, presenting an idealistic and romantic view of life. In this regard, art critic Ron Rosenbaum claims that Cai "really wants to paint the heavens like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Only with gunpowder and flame."

The process and execution of this installation is featured on the documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, released in 2016 by Netflix.

Gunpowder fuse, metal net for gunpowder fuse and scaffolding installation - Huiyu Island Harbor, Fujian Province

Seasons of Life: Summer (2015)
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Seasons of Life: Summer (2015)

Artwork description & Analysis: The painting depicts a couple intertwined in a sexual position in the middle of the canvas, and surrounded by colorful flowers. The large work, about 3 meters in height and 8 meters in length, is a representation of the blossoming of summer, greatly emphasized by the vibrant use of red, blue, and yellow, evoking emotions of bliss, happiness, and vitality. It belongs to the series Seasons of Life and is one of four large paintings, each one representing a specific season.

Overall this work takes inspiration from Japanese shunga, an erotic genre of ukiyo-e woodblock prints that were popular during the Edo period, often depicting couples in intimate positions, celebrating sexual pleasure. Although one might see his rare use of color on a portrait in homage of sensuality as a joyful depiction, for Cai the use of color is also related to grief. To him, more color is "more variation, more loneliness, more sadness . . . as well as lust, desire, sex." He has also stated that black represents spirituality in its purest essence. In this regard, the work can be seen to represent the conflicting and contradictory emotions experienced in the flesh, an ongoing dance between the physical and the ethereal.

In his work process, once the explosions are conducted, Cai often accentuates the pieces with painted on doodles and other more intricate details. Although in the monochromatic pieces, these additions tend to blend more integrally with the work, in this colored example, the additions are more obvious.

Gunpowder on canvas - Collection of the artist

Mountain in heat (2016)
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Mountain in heat (2016)

Artwork description & Analysis: Mountain in heat is a painting featured in the 2017-18 exhibition The Spirit of Painting: Cai Guo-Qiang at the Prado at Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The large work, of over 2 meters in height and 4 and half meters in length, depicts classical architectural Greek and Roman columns and fragments of temples, set against a blurred landscape. Overall, the composition creates an effect of destruction, chaos, and transformation as it seems to catch a single moment of an explosion, or a fragment of history captured in the blink of an eye.

All the work for the exhibition was made with gunpowder, some of which was ignited at the Salón de Reinos itself, making these site-specific works. They find inspiration in the classical artists of the Prado museum collection, especially the paintings of El Greco, who was a profound influence on Cai. As a young boy, Cai's paintings drew heavily on El Greco's language, and in 2009 he embarked on a pilgrimage tracing back the artist's life in Venice, Madrid, and Toledo. But overall, the inspiration for these paintings is derived from the sensitivities and techniques of many Classical artists including Velazquez, Rubens, and Goya.

Each work begins with a series of sketches and in-depth research before gunpowder explosions are orchestrated for the final piece. This rooting in tradition aims to continue the dialogue and the spirit of painting as a medium, exploring Cai's own contribution as he creates a link between classical traditions and contemporary ones.

Gunpowder on canvas - currently at the Prado, Madrid

The Death of Sunflower (2017)
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The Death of Sunflower (2017)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is a gunpowder painting on canvas depicting the life and death of a sunflower, combining all moments of the cycle into one singular image. It features the brilliant yellows of life succumbing to the dark grey tones of death, evocative of the themes that are present in all of his works. Cai claims, "Destruction and construction, yin and yang, positive and negative; the energy is ever exchanging and altering."

The work is also influenced by Cai's ongoing interest in spiritual traditions such as Chinese Taoism, Feng Shui, Qi Gong, and Buddhism. The link between spirituality and art for Cai is always present and very clear, since for him his art achieves the same thing as spiritual mediums: they create a link between the material world and the unseen world. By using "the things we can see, to search for the world we cannot see," Cai infuses his work with an intangible dimension.

The symbol of the sunflower can be associated with Van Gogh's iconic paintings. But the work can also be seen through a more political perspective, since the sunflower is a communist symbol in China. In this sense, a parallel can be made with the work of Ai Weiwei who also used sunflower seeds in his powerful and politically motivated art installation at Tate Modern in 2010.

Gunpowder on canvas or board



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Cai Guo-Qiang Photo

Related Art and Artists

El Greco: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El entierro del conde de Orgaz) (1586 - 1588)

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El entierro del conde de Orgaz) (1586 - 1588)

Artist: El Greco

Artwork description & Analysis: This large painting, three and half meters wide by almost five meters high, is universally regarded as El Greco's greatest masterpiece and most famous work. It was commissioned by the parish priest of Santo Tomé in Toledo, and is considered to be a prime example of Mannerism. Along with Tintoretto, Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo da Pontormo, and others, El Greco is considered one of the main Mannerist artists. His contribution to the development of the movement is marked by visual compositions that moved away from an idealized perfection into a world charged with tension and emotional complexity through form, imagination, and expression.

El Greco referred to this painting as his 'sublime work.' The Burial of Count of Orgaz is a popular legend in Toledo of a pious and charitable man who left a large sum of money to the church after his death and was subsequently buried and escorted to heaven by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine. The funerary scene is portrayed at the bottom of the painting, with the Count surrounded by the two saints, followed by other noble men and clergyman of the time in 16th century clothing, captured in a static way. It is contrasted with the celestial kingdom in heaven that includes Mary, Christ, God, John the Baptist, and the angels, who all observe the scene, depicted in a more organic free flowing way, so as to represent the intangibility and immateriality of spirit. The young boy at the left is said to be Jorge Manuel, the artist's son.

One possible interpretation that is in the juxtaposition of the worlds: the physical world of earth and the spiritual world of heaven, each portrayed in their own ways. Earth is captured in normal scale with more proportional figures, whereas heaven is composed of swirling clouds and abstract shapes, with a more intangible quality to the figures. This clear distinction greatly allows for two ideas: on the one hand a union between both worlds is proposed, on the other, the separation of the worlds is enhanced. Another interpretation is brought forth by art Historian Dr. Vida Hull who claims the painting represents "a visionary experience." In her view, the amorphous character and the elongation of the bodies all convey a profound otherworldliness, as it is the soul of the Count that is being brought up to heaven.

Burial scenes were often depicted as a main religious theme in art. Other notorious works of burials, painted after El Greco's, include the Burial At Ornans (1849) by Gustave Coubert, The Burial of the Sardine (c. 1812-1819) by Francisco Goya, and the Burial of St. Lucy (1608) by Caravaggio.

Oil on canvas - Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo

Yves Klein: Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void) (1960)
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Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void) (1960)

Artist: Yves Klein

Artwork description & Analysis: This controversial photomontage was constructed by Klein by collaging his falling body onto an image of a street. From a young age, he had stated that he possessed the power to levitate, here, we see him attempting to defy gravity. The physicality of the performance might have been inspired in part by Klein's judo training, but it might equally have been inspired by his attitudes to earlier artistic evocations of what he regarded as "the void." Speaking of a still life by the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, he once wrote, "Malevich was actually standing before the infinite - I am in it. You don't represent or produce it - you are it."

Photograph by Harry Shunk; performance by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France - Originally published in Dimanche - Le Journal d'un Seul Jour by Yves Klein

Ai Weiwei: Ton of Tea (2008)
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Ton of Tea (2008)

Artist: Ai Weiwei

Artwork description & Analysis: This work compresses a ton of traditional pu'er tea leaves into the space of one cubic meter. Aesthetically, it recalls the glass and steel cubes of Minimalism. Donald Judd and Robert Morris were among the artists Ai admired. At the same time, it is made out of tea (one smells its pungent odor from afar) setting it apart from anything a Minimalist would make. Much tea in China is still produced in compressed cubes, so this is also an enlarged form of an everyday domestic item. While in the West, drinking tea (especially from Chinese porcelain) has historically been a status symbol, tea is the everyday drink in China. The brand here is one of the most common. In a much less dramatic way than Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai's act of making tea into Minimalist sculpture calls attention to divisions between past and present. Ai's awareness of Western trends and Eastern ideas locates the work at the center of a global matrix crisscrossing the world, a persistent feature of his approach as an artist.

Tea leaves - Ai Wei Wei studio

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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