Cai Guo-Qiang: Odyssey and Homecoming
“A ceremony of a national dream is about to begin.” — Cai Guo Qiang
One of the most prominent Chinese artists of the past two decades, Cai Guo-Qiang makes work that delves into the folkloric precursors to China’s technocratic state, even as he regularly works with that state on his grandest projects. His version of artistic populism aligns Chinese traditions with the “Peasant da Vincis’” show he put on display in 2010, rural ingenuity from his spectacular fireworks display at Beijing’s 2008 Olympics (which he repeated in 2019 for the 70thth anniversary of New China) to 2012’s Sky Ladder and 2014’s The Ninth Wave, the ways that instrumental reason and technology transforms our reality has been an obsession. Sky Ladder, a film about his attempt to connect with his dying grandmother through his pyrotechnic art, is a portrait of the artist as a filial grandson who has stumbled into the global art world; in the film and in person, Cai’s effect signals humility and deference to customary beliefs. Odyssey and Homecoming, first hosted inside Beijing’s Palace Museum (inside the Forbidden City) show an artist whose work straddles the inner corridors of Chinese power, from the pre-revolutionary imperial sanctums to the decision-making groups of the CCP, with few art-world parallels. Xu Bing, whose work is equally centered on updating Chinese traditions to a contemporary Beijing, is the only analogue, but even he hasn’t done projects in the inner sanctum. Once inside the palace, Cai created a VR spectacle of fireworks exploding over a replica of the same Forbidden City, which he’d built at scale in Liuyang, Hunan. All artists are, on some level, in dialogue with reality. But what realities do Cai’s pyrotechnics reveal? The explosive economic growth, with violence, waste and sparkle, of China’s recent decades? Cai is now working on a fireworks display for Beijing’s 2022 Olympics, which Western politicians such as Nancy Pelosi threaten to boycott.
Cai’s show, almost a retrospective of his artistic evolution, came from Beijing to be the inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Art Pudong (MAP), in Shanghai’s economic development zone. Shortly after the show opened, the Pudong development district, which symbolizes China’s reform and opening more than any other space, was announced as a pioneer zone, with a vast array of new funding, tax breaks, and plans to become the future capital city of the global economy.1 As MAP opened, rumors swirled about huge sums of money that the government had paid to the Tate in London for the collaboration, about which the Tate, perhaps fearing political blowback, was notably silent about. As I walked through Cai’s survey, with his paintings inspired by Goya’s Spain, Renaissance Italy, socialist realist Moscow, and modernist New York City, I had a feeling that the Pudong outside of the window is the final stop of this train. The paintings lack the passion and flair that Cai brings to his more Chinese works; like the photos of a tourist in Europe, I was here, and here, and there, and here. Cai’s survey work is cultural appropriation in the most literal sense—coming from an origin point within a local, semi-rural area (the village of Fujian depicted lovingly in Sky Ladder and its city of Quanzhou), Cai has travelled the world, ingesting influences and inspirations from all over—and now here we are, in the ‘dragon head’ of the Chinese economy. Much as the artists he cites as inspirations—Leonardo da Vinci, Goya, the Soviet painter Konstantin Maximov—Cai’s position as an individual artist is identified only by situating himself and his work within an endless history, a cosmology of ritual, and political spectacle; Cai wrote apropos a recent exhibition, “how many generations of Chinese and Soviet artists have been prisoners of their time! Their fate, ever entangled with and steered by politics, are heartrending to behold.”2 The relationship between the artist, a participant observer of history, and his times and the power that structures those times, is made explicit in his Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City (2020),3 in which a dazed artist has reveries of the Forbidden City, leaning against the wall—sometimes, a cat stands in for the artist, with video of Cai’s fireworks for CCP celebrations. “The work represents the chaos and ambiguity faced by an artist who shuttles between his own dream and the collective dream,” Cai says in Sleepwalking in the Forbidden City. Cai observes power even as his work is integrated into power—and much like Xu Bing’s Phoenix, Cai locates China within mythology and legend as well as, simultaneously, the immense reservoir of work and technocratic ability of the Chinese workers who have created the China that the artists find themselves in. dPhoenix is an assemblage of workers’ tools, a work whose style is contemporary but whose form is socialist realist tribute to the anonymous working classes of Beijing. For the artists who matured during China’s transformation, Chinese traditional ideas and the peasantry were the ingredients in a colossal urban transformation which has created a country that’s shockingly new and ancient at the same time. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx said; but if one wanted to wake up, then, the haunted house that is central Beijing and the Forbidden City in particular wouldn’t be the place one would stage an exhibition. Chinese history in all of its frightening majesty fascinates these artists.
Tensions between China and the West were on my mind, as I saw his ruminations on civilizations clashing and synthesizing. In the basement, Cai shows Encounter with the Unknown: Cosmos Project for Mexico, a documentation of a cosmological project of fireworks he made in 2019 in Mexico. The significance of the date, he said, was the 500-year anniversary of the meeting between the Aztecs and the Europeans, who subjugated and destroyed the Aztecs. As in the science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s work, the alien civilization may be malign, and the encounter can destroy you. In his work, Cai celebrates as predecessor of the dream for the stars Wan Hu, the Ming dynasty official who attached rockets to his throne in an attempt to launch into outer space; I last saw Wan Hu being celebrated in the museum connected to Guizhou’s FAST telescope. Cai says that the cosmos is our home, which is the same as saying nothing at all; as Sun Zhongshan said, “Only powerful people have liberty.” The Chinese have always looked to the stars, but it took massive economic growth for the Chinese space program to accelerate, with Mars rovers, a space station, and more in the offing. The ladder to the sky that Cai dreamt up in his village becomes the Chinese space station which shares with Cai’s work an obsession with mythology. In Sleepwalking as well as the geopolitical reality that we’re all sleepwalking into, Cai’s words ring with uncanny accuracy: “the dream of the ancient empire continues.”
- Daniel Ren, “China Grants Tax Breaks” (2021), https://www.scmp.com/business/money/money-news/article/3141277/china-grants-tax-breaks-policy-leeway-turn-shanghai?module=perpetual_scroll&pgtype=article&campaign=3141277.
- Cai Guo Qiang, A Boy’s October, 2017.
- Full disclosure, I was asked to narrate the English version by Cai’s studio and paid for this task.