Assignment 0: Artist Research: Cai Guo-Qiang

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in China, and lives and works in New York. His work is both scholarly and politically charged. Accomplished in a variety of media, Cai began using gunpowder in his work to foster spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China.


To Cai, making art is actually quite a biological process; it’s very visceral. He explains that by equating making artwork with making love. You can talk all day about theories, you can have all these ideas about lovemaking, but it’s really your physicality there, how you’re involved in that moment.


As for methodology, Cai has two ways in which one is more conceptual while the other is more practical. One is a methodology in how you view the world, how you see and understand the world. He takes a lot from the ancient philosophies, from Taoism. And then there is another side: how you specifically approach art or life, exactly how you live in this world, how you make art. These are very much infused in the more daily living and the art making process.


His making process starts with getting to know the material. You actually develop a way to know how it will behave, to a certain degree. Then at that point it becomes stagnant. So, it’s very important that there is always this uncontrollability that’s a part of the work. His way of doing it is just to flow with the material, go with the material, and let it take him where it wants him to go.


Guided by eastern philosophy, Cai has developed an approach which is, in a very naturalistic way, going with nature to see what may be fostered, what may come out of the field and become fertilized.


In an interview about his boat piece Reflection, Cai talks about his research process. This work arose out of a couple of interesting points in Japanese history. After going through a series of transformations, Japan has changed rapidly and uniformly. The obsolescence of wooden boats was a shock to Cai, thus inspiring him to go to Iwaki, Japan to begin a dialogue with the local people, to “have a dialogue with the earth and the universe and the cosmos there”. Cai was also learning from the collaboration with the local people. For example they had to find the old ship makers to teach them the lost art of how to pull and cut the boat.


So, the idea was to start with nothing, to begin very local and to reach for something much grander in scale.


Lastly, I want to end this research with an analogy of Cai’s vision and practice of art and the Chinese scroll. In the traditional Chinese home, over a conversation, the host will see where your interests lie and determine if you are worthy of a certain work—a painting of a Chinese landscape or calligraphy—and unroll a scroll in front of you, opening a whole world up to you. Sometimes Cai’s explosion projects are like these scrolls. Once it opens up the universe and around that, it seems boundless, but then it disappears. What you hold in your mind is a realm that’s limitless. Art doesn’t need to be verified. It doesn’t have to look like anything. Anything is possible.

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