Artist Cai Guo-Qiang: A to Z

Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957) is one of the most iconic contemporary artists alive today.

Cai is best known for his creative use of gunpowder as an artistic medium. He has been setting the world ablaze with bold and innovative explosion events and fireworks. Cai was trained in stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy between 1981 and 1985. His work spans various artistic mediums including painting, installation, video and performance art, and has been exhibited in almost all of the major art institutions across the globe. Drawing upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, his often site-specific artworks respond to the local culture and history at multiple levels. “Presenting the unseen world through visible means” has been his conceptual and methodological pursuit throughout the years, and serves as the cornerstone of his cosmology.

The following A to Z handbook provides glimpses into a few important aspects of Cai’s rich artistic career, providing interesting points of entry from which to explore his world…

The following information is sourced from:

  • Cai Guo-Qiang’s official website: https://caiguoqiang.com/
  • Cai Guo-Qiang’s latest exhibition catalogue: Odyssey and Homecoming, 2021

A

Auction house record

In 2007, Cai sold a set of 14 gunpowder drawings at Christie’s for $9.5 million, an all-time auction high for contemporary Chinese art up to that point. The sale cemented his name as the most expensive Chinese contemporary artist in the world at the time.

B

Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Valencia

Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Valencia, 2005. Explosion event realized at Old Turia Riverbed Park, Valencia, May 22, 2005, 12:05 p.m. Photo by Juan García Rosell, © Institut Valencià d’Art Modern. Generalitat Valenciana, España, 2005

In March 2004, Cai was invited to the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM) for a site visit. Three days before his departure for Spain, a series of terrorist train bombings unfolded in Madrid.

The event prompted Cai to develop black fireworks, specifically invented to be exploded in daylight to invert the brilliance of common nighttime fireworks. This inversion symbolizes the increased vulnerability of populations at the hands of terrorism.

At midday on May 22, 2005, Black Rainbow was realized over the Valencia city’s River Park, marking the realization of Cai’s first daytime fireworks.

C

Cultural Melting Bath: Projects for the 20th Century

Cai Guo-Qiang, Cultural Melting Bath: Project for the 20th Century, 1997. Installation. 18 Taihu rocks, hot tub with hydrotherapy jets, bathwater infused with herbs, and pine trees. Collection of Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon. Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

On August 1, 1997, Cultural Melting Bath: Projects for the 20th Century opened at the Queens Museum of Art, marking Cai’s first major solo exhibition in the United States.

The highlight of the exhibition was the eponymous installation. Visitors were invited to bathe in a hot tub with hydromassage capabilities, made in the United States, filled with soothing traditional Chinese medicinal herb-infused bathwater, with herbs from Cai’s hometown in Quanzhou, China. The bath was surrounded by a garden of spirit stones (also known as scholar’s rocks), arranged for optimal feng shui.

The artist playfully borrowed the idea of New York as a cultural melting pot by literally inviting visitors to bathe together, and by providing a forum for social interaction.

D

Dialogue

The idea of “dialogue” is behind almost all of Cai’s artworks. A dialogue with the unseen world remains a cornerstone of Cai’s art. He has lived outside his homeland China for thirty years, nomadically traversing different histories and cultures, while maintaining a deep affection for his native culture. From the outset, he has sought a cosmic framework and exercised an unbound freedom, regarding “all past and present human civilizations” as part of his own ancestry and history.

Cai also has a long history of engaging with art history. In recent years, the artist embarked on his Individual’s Journey Through Western Art History — a series of exhibitions at significant museums and cultural sites around the world — including the Prado Museum, Uffizi Galleries, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, National Archaeological Museum of Naples and Pompeii Ruins, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. These exhibitions pose the following questions: Can different cultures reach mutual respect? Can great cultures specific to certain people become shared heritage for all humankind?

E

Exploding the Self

Cai Guo-Qiang and the gunpowder painting born of Exploding the Self, 2021. Photo by Sang Luo, courtesy Cai Studio

As a continuation of Cai’s first NFT, Transient Eternity — 101 Ignitions of Gunpowder Paintings, Exploding the Self is also a moment of explosion — the genesis moment of a self-portrait Cai had created at the time. Offered as a small surprise to the NFT community, Exploding the Self consists of 99 limited editions, each priced at $999 USD. Collectors of this work can communicate directly with Cai through TRLab’s owner’s channel on Discord. Collectors of this NFT also have the opportunity to be invited to participate in Cai’s future events, such as opening ceremonies for future projects around the globe. Proceeds from the sale of these 99 editions have gone to support educational programs at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.

F

Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials №9

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials №9, 1992. Explosion event realized at the German Army’s water exercise area, Hann. Münden, June 27,1992, 9:40 p.m., approximately 9 seconds. Photo by Masanobu Moriyama, courtesy Cai Studio

Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials №9 was realized on June 27, 1992 at the German Army’s training base in Hannover- Münden, Germany. The work marks an important early foray into explosion events for Cai.

At the site, gunpowder fuse was arranged on the ground in three concentric circles and eight transverse lines, conveying the “primordial origins of the earth and the human spirit…to feel the origin of the fetus movement of the universe itself, and all existence within it.”

Before the explosion, Cai positioned himself in the middle on a tiny circular island surrounded by a second canal of river water. He was connected to an electrocardiograph and an electroencephalograph to monitor his heart and brainwaves during the explosion. Nine sensors were buried around the outside perimeter of the outer circle and attached to a seismograph on the island to simultaneously chart the movement of the earth. Read together, the outputs described the relationship between his heart rate, brain waves and seismic waves during the blast.

G

Gunpowder

We believe the following excerpt from Cai’s 2007 interview with The Art Newspaper best summarizes his relationship with gunpowder:

“Gunpowder is a spontaneous, unpredictable, and uncontrollable medium. The more you learn to control it, the more obsessed you become with the material. The outcome is unpredictable and the same results are never guaranteed. Furthermore, in using gunpowder I can explore all my concerns: the relation to notions of spirituality as well as an interest in spectacle and entertainment, and the transformation of certain energies — such as explosions — into beauty and a kind of poetry” — Cai Guo-Qiang

H

Head On

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006. 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall. Wolves: gauze, resin, and hide. Dimensions variable. ©FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, Photo: Erika Barahona-Ede

Cai’s iconic work Head On, debuted in an eponymous solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin on August 26, 2006, exemplifies the central role of local history and culture within the artist’s artistic process. In the tableau, a pack of ninety-nine life-sized replica wolves gallop at full force toward a transparent glass wall, leaping through the air in a unified arc, only to collide head on into the unyielding barrier. The wolves turn back after falling to the ground, repeating the cycle.

The work represents our tendency as human beings to blindly be drawn to a collective ideology and repeat past mistakes. The glass wall that the wolves collide with is the same height as the wall that separated East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The inspiration for Head On comes from a visit to the Berlin Wall, where Cai conceived that visible walls are easy to dismantle, but invisible walls are much harder to eliminate.

Head On has become one of Cai’s most traveled works.

I

I Want to Believe

Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, 2004. Nine cars and sequenced multichannel light tubes. Dimensions variable. Installation view of exhibition copy at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York. Photo by David Heald

Opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, I Want to Believe was Cai’s first solo retrospective exhibition.

The exhibition presented a chronological order that charts Cai’s creation of a distinctive visual and conceptual language across four different categories: gunpowder drawings, explosion events, large-scale installations; and social projects. Featuring his major works from the 1980s up until 2008, this exhibition illuminated Cai’s significant contributions to contemporary art and social activism.

I Want to Believe shattered Guggenheim’s record for attendance at a solo exhibition by a visual artist. Since its opening, the exhibition has traveled to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The former attracted about 560,000 visitors, a number larger than the city’s population of 400,000 inhabitants.

J

Japan

Beginning at the end of 1986, Cai spent nearly nine years living in Japan, which was a crucial and formative phase in the development of his art and career. Japan led him to focus his studies on the pure beauty of materials and forms. It was in Japan that he began working with outdoor explosion events, initiating Projects for Extraterrestrials. He also began taking advantage of the delicate yet sturdy Japanese handcrafted paper to create gunpowder drawings. Cai also held his first major solo exhibition in Japan, Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects.

Fun fact: Cai still speaks fairly fluent Japanese.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects, 1991. Seven gunpowder drawings. Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as folding screens. Installation view at P3 art and environment, Tokyo, 1991. Photo by Yoshihiro Hagiwara, courtesy Cai Studio

K

Kigoma, Tokyo

Cai’s first exhibition of a gunpowder work in Japan took place in Kigoma, Tokyo in 1988. He once wrote about the work, titled Space №1: “I used gunpowder on paper screens and added a mirror underneath, creating another spatial dimension. The origins of my ‘installation paintings’ can be traced to the exhibition.” Cai was 31 at the time.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Space №1, 1988. Gunpowder on paper, glass, and light. 157.48 x 87.63 cm for each hanging piece. Installation view, 1989. Photo courtesy Cai Studio

L

Transient Landscape

Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape, 2019, National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Jingya Zhang

Transient Landscape, one of Cai’s important solo exhibitions, opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia on May 24, 2019.

In each room, Cai had his works — a series of large-scale, site-specific gunpowder paintings and installations — coexist with ancient works and artifacts from the concurrent exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. The intermeshing of these works generated a multidimensional dialogue with on conceptual, material, and pictorial levels.

The Transient Landscape and Guardians of Immortality are two exhibitions, akin to two rivers of time separated by two millennia, each coursing at their individual speeds across the same galleries… I hope to raise questions by attempting a new exhibition format, to use contemporary art practices to recontextualize the traditional display of archaeological objects, and to inspire visitors experience the exhibition from an artistic perspective and find resonance on various levels. Even the ‘Guardians of Immortality’ can’t safeguard the Emperor’s reign and power. Like the short-lived Qin dynasty, all reigns will eventually become a transient moment in the long path of history. Yet it is the ‘transient’ that arrives at the ultimate eternal.” -Cai Guo-Qiang

M

“Mushroom clouds”

Cai Guo-Qiang, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996. Realized at various sites that include Nuclear Test Site, Nevada; at Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969–70), Mormon Mesa, Overton, Nevada; at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) Salt Lake, Utah; and at various sites looking toward Manhattan, New York, February–April, approximately 3 seconds each. Gunpowder (10g) and cardboard tubes. Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

Cai uses the iconic image of the “mushroom cloud” in his works, considering it to be among one of the most influential symbols of the 20th century.

In 1995, his first project in the United States was a visit to the Nevada Test Site, where he exploded little mushroom clouds using powder extracted from firecrackers he had acquired in New York’s Chinatown. Other sites of the miniature mushroom cloud included two works of American Earthworks, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) in Nevada and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) in Salt Lake City. The project was also realized in Manhattan. Together, these constituted the work The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century (1996).

This work ended up on the cover of a textbook on art history in the 20th century. The artist’s hand that releases a mushroom cloud symbolizes the hand of mankind — the gains, losses, ambivalences that we have experienced from the time we first kindled fire to the time we attained nuclear power.

N

New York

Cai Guo-Qiang in his East Village studio. Photo by Brett Beyer, Courtesy of OMA

Cai first came to the United States on an Asian Cultural Council (ACC) grant in September 1995 and used the studio in P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center for one year. Cai received numerous invitations for exhibitions in the U.S. within the first year of his stay. He therefore acquired a green card with help from the ACC and settled permanently in New York, establishing his studio.

Soon, he was exhibiting in many major museums in the U.S. beginning with his participation in Hugo Boss Prize 1996 at Guggenheim Museum SoHo, a 1997 solo exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art, Whitney Biennial: 2000 Exhibition, a 2006 solo exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a 2008 retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, in New York. In Cai’s view, the generosity, openness, and tolerance of American culture allowed him to take root and blossom on U.S. soil.

Cai’s current studio is located in a former 1885 schoolhouse in East Village, renovated and expanded by OMA.

O

Olympics

Cai Guo-Qiang, Footprints of History: Fireworks for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 2008. Realized in Beijing, August 8, 2008. Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

Cai served as a member of the core creative team and as the director of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cai also served as the Director of Visual Effects and Fireworks for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games.

P

Peasant da Vincis

Cai Guo-Qiang, Fairytale, 2010. Grass lawn, 60 live birds, wild flowering plants, Wooden Airplane by Chen Zongzhi and Wang Qiang №1 by Wang Qiang, submarines by Li Yuming, helicopters by Xu Bin and Wu Shuzhai, flying saucers by Du Wenda. Dimensions variable. Installation view at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2010. Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio

On May 4, 2010, Cai opened the inaugural exhibition Peasant da Vincis at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, in the context of the concurrent World Expo Shanghai and its theme “Better City, Better Life.” The exhibition presented more than 40 Chinese peasant inventions collected and commissioned by the artist himself.

Out of this experience, Cai creatively coined the term Peasant da Vincis as well as catchphrases such as “Peasants — Making a Better City, a Better Life.” The exhibition examines peasants’ contributions to modernization and urban development and demonstrates the unrestrained creativity of the individual peasant independent of collective will and action.

In 2013, the exhibition traveled to three cities in Brazil, drawing an estimated one million visitors. The stop at Rio de Janeiro became the world’s most-visited exhibition by a living artist that year.

Q

Quanzhou

Cai Guo-Qiang, Homeland, 2013. Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as 8 panel screen, 240 x 750 cm. Photo by Justin Jin, courtesy Cai Studio

Cai’s hometown, Quanzhou, Fujian Province, is a small costal town in southern China. Now honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Quanzhou served as the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road, and by the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 CE), it was the largest seaport in the world. Quanzhou was also a node of global trade and exchange, which made it a richly multicultural city where diverse ethnicities and cultures co-existed. Quanzhou is where almost all the religions of the world coexist peacefully — Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Manichaeism, as well as local faiths as in the goddess Mazu and the warlord Guan Yu.

Quanzhou’s historical confidence, openness, tolerance, and spirit of diversity have nurtured Cai’s art. In current times, the city’s geographical distance from Beijing, the nation’s political center, enabled the artist to maintain relatively more personal freedom and space in the midst of the Socialist system. Most significantly, these historical contexts helped Cai develop a globalized multilateral perspective.

Cai’s hometown has continually influenced his art. He once said:

“Not every work is necessarily inspired by my hometown, but it serves as a ruler or mirror in my work, helping me to feel and understand the allure of different cultures.”

When Cai was a teenager, there were many firecracker factories in Quanzhou and it was relatively easy to obtain gunpowder. In 1984, he began to experiment with gunpowder as a medium for painting in Quanzhou, a practice he continues up until the present day.

R

Transient Rainbow

Cai Guo-Qiang, Transient Rainbow, 2002. Explosion event realized over the East River, from Manhattan to Queens, New York, June 29, 2002, 9:30 p.m., 15 seconds. 1,000 3-inch multi-color peony fireworks fitted with computer chipsPhoto by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

Realized on June 29, 2002, over the East River from Manhattan to Queens, Transient Rainbow was the first pyrotechnic event allowed in New York after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center almost a year prior on September 11, 2001.

With sensitivity to the magnitude of this occasion, the artist chose a rainbow motif to symbolize renewal and promise. In order to create the form of a rainbow, shells containing computer chips were specifically designed to control the precise height and timing of each detonation.

The spectacular result unified viewers in a common celebration.

S

Sky Ladder

Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder, 2015. Realized off Huiyu Island, Quanzhou, June 15, 4:45 am (dawn), 100 seconds. Gunpowder, fuse and helium balloon, 500 x 5.5 m. Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

On June 15, 2015 at dawn, Cai realized the explosion event Sky Ladder off the shore of Huiyu Island in his hometown of Quanzhou, Fujian Province. A 500-meter long, 5.5-meter-wide ladder of golden fireworks, pulled by a gigantic white balloon, soared up into the sky, connecting heaven and earth and dialoguing with infinite time and space. As a child, Cai dreamed of reaching for the sky and touching the clouds and stars.

Sky Ladder is a dialogue between Cai and the unseen world. After three failed attempts across the world over a course of 21 years, finally realized in Quanzhou, Sky Ladder was offered as a gift for Cai’s 100-year-old grandmother, his family, and hometown — a touching story of kinship and belonging.

Soon after its realization, a cellphone shot video of Sky Ladder attracted 56 million views on Facebook alone. Sky Ladder has since become the centerpiece of an eponymous globally released Netflix documentary, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald.

We highly recommend you to watch this documentary.

T

Transient Eternity — 101 Ignitions of Gunpowder Paintings

Screenshot of Transient Eternity, a work by Cai Guo-Qiang, 2021. Photo courtesy Cai Studio

Released in July 2021, Transient Eternity — 101 Ignitions of Gunpowder Paintings was Cai’s debut NFT drop. Commissioned by the Rockbund Art Museum for its tenth anniversary, Transient Eternity transforms the “ignition moments,” a crucial part of Cai’s internationally renowned gunpowder paintings into NFT. The moments all come from the pieces Cai created during his recent Individual’s Journey Through Western Art History.

The work was sold in a charity auction on trlab.com for 2.5 million USD, setting the record for the highest NFT sale from a non-crypto-native artist. Half of the auction proceeds went towards the Rockbund Art Museum in support of the museum’s development and digital art research programs. The other half went towards Cai Foundation, primarily in support of the ACC Cai Fellowship Program, which funds young Chinese artists studying in the United States.

U

U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts

In 2012, Cai was named as one of five artists to receive the first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts for his outstanding commitment to international cultural exchange.

V

Venice Biennale

Cai Guo-Qiang, Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot, 1995. Realized at Palazzo Giustinian Lolin and Grand Canal in June, 1995. Installation incorporating wooden fishing boat from Quanzhou, Chinese herbs, ginseng (100 kg), utensils to prepare and drink herbal beverages, and other artworks by the artist as components. Boat approximately 700 x 950 x 180 cm. Photo by Yamamoto Tadasu, courtesy Cai Studio

Now over a century old, the Venice Biennale is the world’s most prestigious art exhibition. Cai has participated in the Venice Biennale seven times, through his exhibitions, curation projects, and parallel exhibitions; he has also received several related awards.

Cai first participated in the Biennale in 1995, when he realized Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot and won the first Benesse Prize. In 1999, Cai was awarded the biennale’s Golden Lion for his installation Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard. The installation was formally based on the iconic 1965 social-realist sculpture Rent Collection Courtyard, which depicted the mistreatment of peasants at the hands of prerevolutionary landlords. The sculpture was repeatedly copied and exhibited across China for its propagandistic value.

Cai had the Socialist Realist sculptures re-created on site by Long Xuli, one of the original artists, and a group of young sculptors under the title Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard. By letting the audience watch the artists make the sculptures, the artists became the subjects of the piece, and their fates within history became the theme of the piece.

W

Wall

Cai Guo-Qiang, Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials №10, 1993. Gunpowder (600kg) and two fuse lines (10,000 m each), explosion length approximately 10,000m. Photo by Masanobu Moriyama, courtesy Cai Studio

From the Berlin Wall in Germany to the Wailing Wall in Israel to the Great Wall in China… the image of the wall appears repeatedly in Cai’s works.

In 1993, the explosion event Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials №10 began at Jiayuguan, the western-most section of the Great Wall of China in Gansu Province. To offset the costs of the project, Cai organized a tour group from Japan to attend the explosion event. More than a hundred tourists and local volunteers extended 10,000 meters of fuse from the end of the Great Wall into the Gobi Desert. At dusk the fuse was detonated and a line of fire evocative of a dragon glided across the plain, dedicated to the audience from the universe.

The work explores the original intentions for building the city wall as well as the relationship between human beings and the universe, and exemplifies the artist’s methodology of collaborating with the public to realize his creative ideas.

X

X-Hall

As a special commission for the exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Odyssey and Homecoming at the Museum of Art Pudong in Shanghai, Cai created a large scale kinetic light installation Encounter with the Unknown for the museum’s unconventional X hall, which measures over 30 meters tall. Encounter with the Unknown quickly became one of the most popular works after the museum opened.

A spectacle inspired by the nature-based cosmology of the Mayan civilization, Encounter with the Unknown weaves together images from stories and myths of humans who “defied gravity” and “embraced the cosmos,” through the form of hand-crafted Mexican Castillo fireworks, and the technology of computer-operated “light drawings.” Together, the two create a dynamic multidimensional image that includes impressions of “black holes” to “Gagarin” and “Einstein” and “Hawking” along with numerous motifs of flying saucers, extraterrestrials, and frolicking cherubs in the sky…

The work aims to capture the human longing for the cosmos that has prevailed since ancient times; it also seeks to convey our renewed curiosity and yearning for unknown worlds at this moment in a time when our future seems more uncertain than ever.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Encounter with the Unknown, 2021. Kinetic light installation, Castillo towers with motors, LED lights, and computer-programmed control software, Approx. 3000 x 1700 x 1700 cm. Realized at the Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai. Photo by Gu Kenryou, courtesy Cai Studio

Y

Yin-yang

Cai’s artistic roots include feng shui, traditional Chinese medicine and other Eastern philosophies, emphasizing the balance of yin and yang.

In the 1992 explosion event Fetus Movement II, the site of explosion — a military base — connoted violence (yang), which prompted Cai to add “flowing water” (yin) to return the base to the natural balance. In 1993’s explosion event Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, Cai specially prepared local Chinese herbal remedies for the participants to take before and after the explosion. A tonic was consumed to fortify the mind and body in preparation for the arduous trek into the desert and to render the mind open to the experience. Afterward, a soothing and calming elixir was consumed to balance the excitement generated by the event.

Z

Zeitgeist

Cai Guo-Qiang, Transparent Monument, 2006. Glass, papier-mâché, fiberglass, plastic, and feathers. 10.17 x 309.9 x 81.3 cm. 457.2 x 309.9 (exact) x 81.3 cm. Photo by Hiro Ihara, courtesy Cai Studio

Back in elementary school, Cai would secretly tune in to “enemy stations” (broadcasts from outside of Mainland China) under the covers. Since then, he has been an avid consumer of news on current affairs, especially international politics. In his work, Cai dialogues with the present as much as with the past. On the one hand, he responds to current events and social issues through his work; on the other hand, he derives energy for living and working in a complex, multicultural state by thinking broadly about rapidly changing international situations.

As humankind was about to enter the year 2000, Cai was invited by UNESCO to conceptualize a project in anticipation of the new millennium and proposed Peaceful Earth: Project for Extraterrestrials №18. If realized, this project would have required everyone on the Earth to participate, turning off their lights one time zone after another at the moment they crossed over from the last millennium to the next, letting the earth rest. Another project, The Last Supper: Project for Extraterrestrials №31 (1999), took place on the last day of 1999 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where the artist distributed small firework tubes to all local residents. Once ignited, they sent smoke drifting up the city’s long-unused chimneys, as though rewinding time through this last supper of the millennium.

After 9/11, he commemorated the disaster with his explosion event Transient Rainbow. A more somber response from the artist to the tragedy was found in his solo exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In particular, the titular work Transparent Monument consists of a 5-meter-high piece of glass erected to face the direction of the World Trade Center’s site. Cai has explained:

“In the multidimensional world of reality, the contents behind the glass become two-dimensional; the moment a bird crashes into the glass and falls, time and space seem to shift and morph, creating chaos. Airplanes cannot cross to the other side and crumble before the two-dimensional plane. This piece of glass is like a giant scroll painting slotted into the middle of our era. I keep thinking about the ambiguous and convoluted connotations of this work. The only thing clear to me is that, though I have made installations of cars, tigers, and crocodiles following 9/11, I stopped working with this subject matter after making Transparent Monument.

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