Cai Guo Qiang was born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province of China in the year 1957. Cai Guo-Qiang gained an exposure to Traditional Chinese art forms and Western literature as an effect of his father’s job, who was a traditional painter and a calligrapher, and worked in a bookstore. Cai grew up in the period, which was under social tensions of the Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, Cai himself participated in the parades and various demonstrations. His memories and experiences of the various forms of explosions, such as fireworks of celebration and cannon balls, made a deep impact on his creative streak and imagination. Creating the artworks by gunpowder explosions became his signature style. It can be said that he was, in a way trying to depict the good and the bad ways in which gunpowder can be used, through his art.
“The Spring and Fall of a Small Town” and “Real Kung Fu of Shaolin” were the two martial art movies that Cai acted in the late teens and early twenties. Cai, fascinated by the effect of Western art forms and the modernity of it, enrolled into the Shanghai Theatre Academy to study stage design from 1981 to 1985. The knowledge he acquired from this gave him an understanding of the various elements and practices of the stage as well as a sense of teamwork, spatial arrangements and the importance of interactivity.
Apart from the experimentation and use of gunpowder to create his artworks, Cai worked with stick-figure as well as abstract patterns with oil during the period of the New wave of 1985, after which Cai moved to Japan when the movement gained momentum during 1986.
The theme and the subject of Cai Guo Quiang’s works draw from an array of various traditions, mainly the eastern tradition; symbols, narratives and things such as science, Chinese medicines, plants and animals, fengshui, shanshui paintings, portraiture and most importantly, fireworks. Cai draws the content of his art from the contemporary social issues, eastern philosophy and from the Maoist sentiments, that are depicted with the help of gunpowder drawings that portrays the tenet of Mao Zedong “destroy nothing, create nothing.”
When Cai has to work on a specific site, he often alludes to the history and the culture of that specific region or place where the work is to be presented. Cai, in the context of the history of Chinese contemporary art has a “”critically” important role, since he was among the first few artists who contributed by initiating the discussion of the Chinese art.
“Projects for Extraterrestrials”
With the advent of the 90s, Cai started the “Projects for Extraterrestrials”. Cai worked on the project using humongous trails and rows of flaring gunpowder spanning over huge surfaces and landscapes. These projects have been usually site-specific and were performed in various countries and locations across the world. As the name, “Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10” (1993) indicates, the project involved the use of 6 miles long fuse of gunpowder, which was stretched afar the western end of the Great Wall whence the Gobi Desert started. After ignition of the fuse it burned for 15 minutes, which created a pattern akin to a dragon, which is the symbol of ancient mythological and imperial heritage of China. The inspiration behind the title of the series’ roots from Cai’s belief in the creation of beauty and joy with the help of a earthly conflict, such as the “material fuel” to gain a higher perspective through the celebration of pure energy.
Cai wanted to break the monotony of the social climate, as well as the traditional artistic practices in China, which were more controlled and suppressed expressions of art, this he achieved with the help of gunpowder to generate spontaneity. During his stay in Japan from 1986 to 1995, Cai extensively experimented the properties of gunpowder in his artworks, which eventually prepped him to explore massive explosives and the inception of the “explosion events”. As a result of an artistic exchange between the United States and the Asian countries, promoted by an international organization called the Asian Cultural Council based in New York, Cai moved to New York in 1995.