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Cai Guo-Qiang - Biography and Legacy

Chinese Painter, Installation, and Performance Artist

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

Biography of Cai Guo-Qiang


Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City in the Fujian Province of China. His father Cai Ruiqin worked at a bookstore, was a collector of old books and manuscripts, and an amateur calligrapher and painter. He transmitted these early appreciations to Cai during his childhood, especially traditional landscape painting and calligraphy, and raised his son with a religious outlook on life, combining Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist teachings.

In 1966 when Cai turned 9, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution began. During this time, in Quanzhou, explosions were quite common; from cannon blasts, from artillery batteries firing into the air, or from firework displays at celebratory events. These defined Cai's first experiences with explosives. Quite particularly, as a child he began having a strange, reoccurring dream of a fireworks display at an empty Tiananmen Square, where he was the only spectator. This image and spectacle ended up exerting a great influence on the young artist's later art.

Education and Early training

During the Cultural Revolution when all art, literature, tradition, and intellectual endeavors were forbidden, Cai's father encouraged him to read the outlawed Western classics, believing that knowledge, and the art of calligraphy, were fundamental for human growth. He still recalls his father burning his precious books in the basement at night, afraid that they would lead to his death. His father then found sanctuary in a Buddhist nunnery where he often wrote his beloved calligraphy with sticks in puddles on the ground. These ephemeral artworks that for Cai left behind "invisible skeins of sorrow," also deeply influenced his later conception of art. "As his son," he claims, "besides working hard to inherit his virtues, I have to challenge this kind of overly rational and timid persona."

As a teenager, Cai witnessed the effects of the Revolution and participated in propaganda activities, in movements and parades, collecting and redistributing fliers, demolishing classrooms, and being otherwise rebellious in what he claims to have been a "kind of game." In this climate of oppressiveness and restrictiveness, he found that he could liberate himself through the medium of gunpowder, as he began to experiment and play with firecrackers - he said: "playing with fireworks set me free". In this sense, art scholar and curator Alexandra Munroe claims that "Cai is a product much more than a victim of his time."

In his early twenties, he began developing an interest in cinematography and theater. He acted in a martial art film entitled Real Kung Fu of Shaolin (1980) and enrolled in stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute in 1981.

These student years greatly defined Cai's aesthetic thinking and shaped his views as an individual and as an artist. He was greatly influenced by the sense of theatricality, spatial arrangement, and theater production derived from his classes. Yet he was also greatly influenced by his friend Chen Zhen, an artist who was exploring ancient Chinese culture as a counter perspective to contemporary society. After concluding his studies in 1985, he began experimenting with gunpowder and oil paints on canvas, combining theatricality with his love for the medium. Much of his work, especially the gunpowder drawings, was inspired by Maoist and Socialist concepts which strongly mirrored Mao Zedong's tenet "destroy nothing, create nothing." The artist has stated that, "In some sense, Mao Zedong influenced all artists from our generation with his utopian romance and sentiment."

Mature Period

A year later, in 1986, Cai went to live in Japan, escaping the constrained environment he found himself immersed in. He lived and worked there with his wife Hong Wu, learning Japanese and further developing his experimentations with gunpowder over the course of nine years.

Japan turned out to be a fundamental location for his artistic path, and although he found it hard to make a living, his techniques greatly matured. Most significantly, he discovered that he could ignite explosives directly onto canvas in an intuitively exploratory way, defining an artistic language that would later become his signature style.

In 1995, Cai moved to New York on an artist exchange program, a grant from the Asian Cultural Council for a residency at the P.S.1 Studio Program in Long Island. In New York he continued to be recognized for his unusual work, which was rapidly growing both in scale and impact. For Cai this work became a performative event and whether he was making physical pictures out of explosions or ephemeral installations meant to be impermanent and temporarily impactful, he was redefining the possibilities of what art could be, shaking up the status quo and asking viewers to contemplate new ways of considering the creative process. To this regard, art historian Alexandra Munroe adds, that "Cai's rise to international prominence following his move to Japan in 1986 and later to New York in 1995 is unparalleled in contemporary Chinese art".

The juxtaposition of Cai as a man and his bombastically derived artwork is notable. He is generally perceived to be relaxed, usually dressed in understated t-shirts, and is generally known as an elegant and pleasant man. Believing in the traditional Chinese conception of energy, he is known for having stopped a project because a shaman told him that the water might contain spirits. Art critic Ron Rosenbaum also explains that when Cai went to Hiroshima, he claimed to have felt the "essence of spirits there." Along with the political, his spirituality oftentimes infiltrates his work as he explores symbols, narratives, and traditions found in such personal interests as Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, shansui paintings, science, and nature.

Cai still works in New York City, in a studio located in Manhattan's East Village with his ten assistants. The studio was renovated by OMA (Rem Koolhaas's architectural studio) with the idea of it later being turned into a foundation. Cai's artistic life and financial success in America has allowed him to stay outside the political climate of China over these turbulent years.

Despite being recognized as distinctively Chinese, Cai's fame has been elevated on a global scale where he is renowned as a cross-cultural artist working on universal ideas and themes. He is generally considered an international art star, and one of the most remarkable contemporary artists of our time. He also owns a property in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. It was redesigned by Frank Gehry and Trattie Davies and includes a main house, a conversion of an old barn into a large studio, and an exhibition space.

He is currently in his 60's and his artistic endeavors are still at full development. Devoted to his work, he spends most days in his studio, where he eats elaborately prepared lunches and welcomes guests like a proper Chinese host.

The Legacy of Cai Guo-Qiang

In China, Cai is known for his phrase, "Art can be a reckless doing." Because his work emphasizes the spontaneous process of creation through a radically new medium, and is often constructed via elaborate theatrical orchestration, he stands out from his artist peers. While drawing inspiration from various spiritual and ancient sources he aims to create a bridge between the seen and the unseen worlds while simultaneously remaining invested in exposing contemporary political issues. He has thus created his own unique niche in the vast contemporary artistic panorama.

His art can be seen to create a dialogue with the ideas proposed by Arte Povera and their disregard for the traditional art establishment, with Joseph Beuys' theories related to the political and social implications of art, and to Yves Klein's Performance art. Parallels can also be established with his fellow Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, especially for his revolutionary ideas of art that break away from established artistic traditions by defining a new artistic language that holds strong political messages. Munroe writes, "Although his practice can be related to Conceptual, Performance, and Land art, Cai extends each art form toward a new matrix by operating outside conventional parameters."

He is also highly criticized, as his works are often associated with theatrics rather than with typical fine art. Artist and art critic Jonathon Keats, claims he is "good for China and bad for art," emphasizing the lack of (political) content and the emphasis on visual beauty, whereas art critic Peter Schjeldhal adds that star artists like Cai "belong less to an art world than to a travelling art circus." Despite these views Munroe claims that his importance on contemporary art is critical, adding that it is "as an artist of the global art system that Cai's work has come to be appreciated."

His body of work has a great international media exposure and his artistic endeavors are highly publicized spectacles both for their ephemerality and monumentality. In 2008, Cai orchestrated the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, a fantastical explosive fireworks display that some critics panned as the artist's way of selling out commercially in the role of a commissioned choreographer rather than making work true to his voice. This perhaps hearkens to Cai's true legacy, being an artist who defies expectation and explores the many possibilities of his beloved medium in a constant cross pollination between the personal and the political. His impact in the art world and on the contemporary conception of art still remains to be crystalized, yet his position as one of the first post-Cultural Revolution artists has helped further discussions of Chinese art as a credible artistic narrative within the modern art sphere.

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Cai Guo-Qiang Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 12 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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