Cai Guo-Qiang, 44, may be the most high-profile Chinese artist working on the global art scene. Last October, he staged a grand fireworks spectacle to celebrate the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit Meeting in Shanghai. He is scheduled to stage an event for the grand opening of the Museum of Modern Art's new Queens facility on June 29 and a performance piece at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe in Western Japan in July.
Still later this year, an exhibition of Chinese and Taiwanese artists organized by Cai opens at defunct military bunkers on Kinmen Island, Taiwan. Last but not least, one of his works, a seven-panel screen from 1991 with an image in gunpowder of the moon and the Great Wall, soared above its presale estimate of $30,000-$40,000 to sell for $229,500 at Christie's New York on May 14.
Born in Fujian Province in China in 1957, Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute. In 1986 he moved to Japan, where he began producing and showing art, almost immediately receiving national and international recognition. He has been based in New York City since 1995.
Cai, best known for large-scale, outdoor performance pieces involving gunpowder explosions, is currently tackling something quite different -- a Japanese tea house. The tea house was originally built in 1972 on the premises of the Hakone Open-Air Museum in the picturesque hot-spring mountain resort of Hakone, in the mountains a two-hour-train ride away from Tokyo, and had been the venue of numerous traditional tea parties. Unused since 1997, the museum decided to invite several leading artists to transform the little house into a contemporary art gallery. Cai is the first they asked.
One recent afternoon, I caught up with the smiling, soft-spoken artist while he worked on the tea house in Hakone.
"Cai Guo-Qiang's CHADO Pavillion -- Homage to Tenshin Okakura" opens at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, May 25-Sept. 23, 2002.
Kay Itoi: How did this tea house project come about?
Cai Guo-Qiang: Ever since I lived in Japan, Tenshin Okakura, who first introduced Japanese culture to the West (and published The Book of Tea in English in 1906) had been on my mind. When the museum approached me, I thought of Tenshin and immediately wanted to do the project, although I knew it would be difficult to turn a tea house into an artwork. What could I possibly do with this already perfect space? I also had Masayoshi Sen (a young grand tea master) teach me the formalities and rules of the tea ceremony. To create a feeling of infinity in such constrained circumstances, I decided to take away all the glass panels, "fusuma" and "shoji" screens.
KI: What will the visitors see?
CGQ: I will have the tea party scene from the movie Rikyu (1989) [about Rikyu Sen, the 16th-century master who perfected the Way of Tea] projected on the walls. It will show during the day and won't be dark, so people will see vague, mysterious images. Mr. Sen will perform the tea ceremony every weekend during the show. We have installed red lighting in the garden, so during the day it will give the feeling of an old black-and-white photograph, retouched with some color.
KI: I have always thought of your work as fierce, something that explodes. But this work. . . .
CGQ: It involves something internal and ethereal. I have created a lot of pieces that are outward, including the APEC fireworks, which might give the impression of a ferocious artist. At the same time, though, I have wanted to look inwardly, create something universal and quiet. I am both aggressive and gentle.
KI: How do you approach different projects?
CGQ: In some cases, I have specific ideas for specific pieces. In others, when asked to do something, I go to the site and research local history and culture. It not only helps me generate ideas but also makes it easier for the locals to accept the work when it's done. I would like the general audience to look at my work and think about the idea behind it.
KI: In your work, you have used such uniquely Chinese products as gunpowder and Chinese herbal medicine.
CGQ: Every country I have visited has its own Chinatown, where I always find a Chinese drugstore. On the other hand, there are countries where you have trouble finding oil paint, but I have always been able to find gunpowder wherever I went.
KI: You haven't lived in China since 1986. Has it changed your work?
CGQ: When I was in Japan, many of my themes centered on how humans relate to nature and to space. I learned a lot from the way that Japanese see nature. After I moved to America, my work became more political. I have also come to appreciate the immediacy of visually beautiful and powerful expressions. American art is visually straightforward and strong. Asian art is subtle and ambiguous. You don't understand its theme immediately. It touches you gradually and slowly -- like the tea ceremony or Chinese herbal medicine, which doesn't cure a disease overnight.
KI: Your Rent Collection Courtyard, a replica of sprawling, iconic, 1960s-socialist terra-cotta sculptures made during the Cultural Revolution, which you presented at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and won a prize for, provoked a controversy in China. (The Sichuan Academy of Art, whose member artists worked on the original threatened to sue Cai and the Biennale for copyright infringement.) What was that all about?
CGQ: The attacks began with the media -- I was called a "banana artist," or one of the "green-card tribe," a yellow-faced white man. But on the legal front, the court ruled that works created during the Cultural Revolution could not be granted copyright. During that time, (Chinese) art scholars and journalists held a symposium in Beijing to discuss the issue and they supported me. This heated debate turned out to be very good for China and Chinese contemporary art. Before the controversy, no matter how many Chinese artists were featured in the Venice Biennale and how greatly their work was appreciated overseas, the mainstream Chinese art world just ignored it as being something Western.
But they can no longer pretend that overseas Chinese artists' activities have so few ties with what is going on inside of China, and that Chinese art has no connection with Western art history. This was also the first critical review of the art made during the Cultural Revolution, the role of the makers and the products in relation to politics. Interestingly enough, literature and intellectual thoughts have undergone this investigation extensively but visual arts had avoided it until then.
KI: At the time of the Venice controversy, could you have imagined staging the APEC fireworks, which happened three years later?
CGQ: No. It surprised everybody. The Chinese government has changed more drastically inside than it appears outside. Earlier this year the Shanghai Art Museum featured my work in a one-man show. It was the first solo contemporary art exhibition at a national museum. They are now thinking about a Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I didn't expect China to change so much, economically and culturally, while remaining a socialist nation with the Communist party in power.
KI: What does it mean for Chinese artists?
CGQ: Until now, Chinese artists created works criticizing the Chinese government. Such works easily interested and appealed to Western audiences. But now that the Chinese government is no longer their enemy, Chinese artists cannot continue criticizing the government just to make art. Since I left China, I have been free as a bird. If I ever faced a situation where the Chinese foreign minister or ambassador threw a reception in my honor, I wouldn't know what to do.