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Cai Guo-Qiang Shares His Thoughts on Ephemerality, Universality and Getting Back to the Art Itself

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Artist Interview by Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld

Cai Guo-Qiang is without a doubt one of today's most celebrated and important Contemporary artists. He was born in China's Fujian province in 1957, but has since traversed the globe, learning about foreign cultures and gaining seemingly infinite layers of depth that are each manifest in his artwork. Unfettered by any one time, place, genre, or philosophy, Cai Guo-Qiang infuses all of his art with a unique creative spirit, whether it be his famous gunpowder works, the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (watched by one billion people, or fifteen percent of the world's population), or his recent Sky Ladder, an explosion event in his hometown of Quanzhou.

Arthena: Where did you begin your journey as an artist?

Cai Guo-Qiang: My father was a calligrapher and Shan-shui painter, so I have an artistic background. And there were a few factors and circumstances from a young age that lead me on the path to becoming an artist.

- First, I feared I would one day have to get up every morning to go to work.

- I also always enjoyed the beauty around me, such as pretty girls, and flowers. They were deemed bourgeois in a communist society, but an affinity toward beauty showed that I had a particular eye fit for an artist.

-I could also spot the differences in shapes and objects.

-When I was in elementary school I was assigned to write and draw on the school announcement board. My classmates and teachers admired my penmanship and drawings, and I felt a sense of accomplishment for having my work on display.

Head On, 2014
My inspiration comes from many different directions. Sometimes I would be invited to exhibit in a certain country, and immediately, within ten minutes, I could get a sense of the place and begin thinking about what would be appropriate to make. For places where I don't immediately get an idea, I spend a few hours online researching the history and landscapes of the location to get a sense of the place. I will also go for a site visit and experience the local cultures for inspiration. Regardless of whether my inspirations come from sitting on a plane at high altitudes or lying half awake in the middle of the night, all of my inspirations comes from my life experiences: the changes I encounter as I age, my aesthetic expectations, my ideas, and even the making of my artwork.

Holding a Chinese passport made it very difficult to travel in the late 80s and early 90s. So I imagined an extraterrestrial world where aliens could walk with big feet boundless to terrestrial laws and borders. I later realized this idea at the 29th Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing where twenty-nine foot prints were ignited into the sky spanning 15km through the main road to the Bird's Nest stadium. This symbolized a historic moment and transition where the world has come to China, and China is walking out into the world.

Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics

A: Tell us more about the importance of ephemerality in your art. (i.e. explosion events, gunpowder works)

CGQ: Ephemerality relates to Eastern philosophy and culture. The Chinese word for Space is Yu Zhou 宇宙, 宇 'yu' means space, and 宙 'zhou' means time. Therefore the universe represents time and space at the same time, and the history and life that links time from past to present. In my art, the momentary nature of gunpowder represents the eternity of time and space in an ephemeral moment. The quality of ephemerality also occurs with my installation works. An example of that would be Head On. Ninety-nine replica wolves hang in the exhibition space to represent the cycle of a moment, where the space represents time. And on top of that, I emphasize the importance of working with nature and different cultures throughout the process of creating my art to make each piece transitory and unique.

Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows, 2008

A: We're fascinated by your exploration of space, movement and floating objects. What inspires those themes in your work?

CGQ: I like to create an illusion of anti-gravity in my art. I aspire for my works to look effortless. An example would be Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrow that is currently on display at MoMA.

A: How do you combine traditional Chinese themes and modern elements?

CGQ: People can easily see my use of gunpowder and Chinese traditional materials or stories as derivatives of my Chinese heritage. I sometimes use dragons as motifs, and there are similarities between the effect of gunpowder in my drawings to that of watercolor in traditional Chinese paintings. But for my art to be accepted by all cultures, the common ground is in its inherent sense of youthful wonder and romanticism. There is a universal theme and language that everybody can relate to, that includes a person's relationship to space and nature, an aesthetic style, and an exploration of something that's never been done before. Finally, I have a professional team to help build my work and fully realize my visions of the aforementioned qualities I aspire for.

The combination of all these elements crosses Eastern themes into contemporary Western consciousness. Sometimes my art can even surpass what is deemed the East or the West. While in Japan, I looked to combine Eastern ideals with the Western, later in the United States I became a critic of my own work to be sure to flee from defining myself within either category. My time living in Japan lead me to create my Project for the Extraterrestrials, where I shifted my perspective to outer space, looking over Earth to create works on that scale.

Sunshine and Solitude, 2010
Tell us a little about your upcoming projects.

CGQ: I am curating a Chinese contemporary art exhibition that will be exhibited next March in Doha, Qatar. It will then travel to Australia and China, and hopefully Europe and the United States. The background for creating this exhibition comes from the current state of Chinese contemporary art as a global focus on its display of communist issues and social problems, and the Chinese art market values. The world focuses on these aspects of Chinese contemporary art, but there isn't much concern for the individual's creativity and artistic exploration. The show will be titled What About The Art. This is not just an issue within Chinese contemporary art, but in contemporary art in the world today. People are too swayed by what is in vogue, and seek a variation of ways to discuss artworks, but there isn't enough analysis of the work itself that considers the artistic methods and the artist's individual explorations.

Lulu is a Team Member and Staff Writer at Arthena.

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