A correspondence with Cai studio

Cai Guo-Qiang, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996, Nevada Nuclear Test Site PHOTO: Hiro Ihara Courtesy of Cai Studio
Cai Guo-Qiang, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996, Nevada Nuclear Test Site
PHOTO: Hiro Ihara
Courtesy of Cai Studio

Dear Editor,

Thank you very much for sending the interview with Zheng Shengtian for the studio’s reference—the article offers a conscientious review of the experiences of many Chinese artists in America over the past decades. It bears a lot for domestic art circles to contemplate, and will most likely exert a long-term influence. However, while we underscore the difficulty of establishing oneself in America, it may be necessary to also speak for the efforts that have been made by the museums and mainstream art institutions in America.

Cai Guo-Qiang, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996, Nevada Nuclear Test Site PHOTO: Hiro Ihara Courtesy of Cai Studio
Cai Guo-Qiang, The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, 1996, Nevada Nuclear Test Site
PHOTO: Hiro Ihara
Courtesy of Cai Studio

Here, we will only take the artist Cai Guo-Qiang as an example. Once arriving in the U.S. in 1995, he was allowed to visit the Nevada Nuclear Test Site; not long after which, with the funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Queens Museum of Art in New York held a critical exhibition for the artist. After that, Cai’s large-scale installations were realized and exhibited at various American museums and Biennales, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1997) and the 2000 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art. In the post-9/11 context, for two consecutive years, Cai realized his solo explosion events, organized by the Museum of Modern Art above the East River and Central Park in New York in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Not to mention that in 2003, the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station near San Diego was open for Cai to let six military planes to “paint” Chinese landscape painting against the blue sky with trailing white vapors.

In the years that followed, Cai’s solo exhibitions, featuring a variety of media and forms, were realized in various major art and academic institutions, including the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (2004), Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (2004), Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006), Philadelphia Museum of Art (2010), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2010), and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012).

For Cai’s retrospective exhibition at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2008, in particular, more of the museum’s space was used than for any other artist in the museum’s history. The exhibition also broke the attendance record for the Guggenheim’s solo exhibitions. At the end of 2012, the U.S. Department of State awarded Cai the Medal of Arts; the other four medalists included American contemporary artist Jeff Koons.

The facts mentioned above demonstrate that mainstream art circles in the U.S. have given Cai the attention and support that have at times exceeded that for local artists—imagine what would happen to an American artist if he/she were in China?

For your reference and discussions only,

Cai Studio


Dear Mr. Cai,

In response to the criticisms of the conservatism of American cultural institutions, it would be ineffective to counter with criticisms of the arrogance and conservatism of Chinese cultural institutions. Doing so would amount to changing the topic.

To compare, or even compete, on the grounds of democracy, perhaps we would lose sight of a more important question: Why are cultural institutions conservative, and how come their conservatism and arrogance are seemingly self-justified? Those obstructive things, whether they appear in American or Chinese cultural institutions, must be eliminated.

We must return to the question of how the global art habitat and its power systems have been formed. Probing this question would benefit both Chinese and American artists.

As a whole, what are the reasons for Western institutions’ openness to Chinese Contemporary Art? And what is the bottom line of their amiability?

Cai Guo-Qiang, Light Cycle: Explosion Project for Central Park, realized at Central Park, 2003, New York PHOTO: Hiro Ihara Courtesy of Cai Studio
Cai Guo-Qiang, Light Cycle: Explosion Project for Central Park, realized at Central
Park, 2003, New York
PHOTO: Hiro Ihara
Courtesy of Cai Studio

You were permitted to create work in the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. If the work touched upon grounds that forced the authorities to review their use of nuclear weapons, would the relevant cultural institution permit the artist to enter the site?

While 9/11 propelled American society into a unique situation, the event also brought a lot of innocent detainees to Guantánamo Bay detention camp. If an artist proposed to show work that offered voice to these people, would MoMA have accepted such a proposal?

Let us further our examination:

What is the premise of American cultural institutions in their welcoming of contemporary art? What is the relationship between this friendly gesture and American national politics? From the perspective of American national politics, how are Chinese contemporary art and artists addressed and treated?

Song Yi

LEAP Senior Editor

January 2014


Dear Song Yi,

Thank you for the letter. It has brought up a variety of issues, such as the role of cultural institutions in the political system of the United States, their so-called bottom line, and their attitude toward Chinese contemporary art. Every one of these subjects is in fact complex enough to be studied in depth independently. Therefore, I would prefer to expand upon my own experiences, which were mentioned in the last letter sent from Cai Studio, and to describe the nature of the relationships that I, as an artist, have with various American institutions. It will be a precious review and may indirectly answer some of your questions. There are most likely similarities and discrepancies among different artists’ experiences. Here I’m only offering my own stories for your reference.

In September of 1995, I moved from Japan to New York for a one-year artist residency at MoMA PS1. PS1 helped me to install a smoke ventilator, which allowed me to blow up small mushroom clouds on paper every now and then to mark my attendance. Soon enough, I was shortlisted as one of the finalists of the first Hugo Boss Prize, awarded by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. As a matter of fact, I did not really know about the work of the other American finalists except that of Matthew Barney, who was a big hit at the time. As I started to make gunpowder drawings in Quanzhou in 1984, by the time I had become a finalist, I had over a decade of experience in “playing with fire.” By then, I had also dabbled with making large-scaled installations and creating outdoor explosion events in Japan and Europe, so I had a fair shot at the prize.

Thus at the finalists’ exhibition of the first Hugo Boss Prize in 1996, I was able to convince the Guggenheim Museum to fund my large-scaled installation Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan. To symbolize Genghis Khan’s march to the west, the work consisted of 108 sheepskin bags, which people used as rafts to cross the Yellow River. At the rear of the installation behind the sheepskin bags, three salvaged Toyota engines made an enormous noise, so visitors could hear the work when they first entered the exhibition space [in Soho]. The booming noise propelled the sheepskin bags into the air like a dragon, which hinted at the worries of the Yellow Peril and the insecurities about the rise of Asia. A row of photocopies of and clippings from American mainstream publications, such as Newsweek and Time, were lined up on the wall, presenting reports on the impact of the emergence of Asia and China on the power structure of the world.

This relatively provocative work struck a nerve with society at that time. It was inconsistent with the clean and somewhat egocentric New York aesthetic, which was prevalent in the work of the other finalists. In the eyes of the critics, I was a “dark horse.” Not surprisingly, Matthew Barney won the award. However, the art world, especially European press, felt the jury was unjust to me. Afterward, the Guggenheim museum offered to acquire this work. Even though I needed the money desperately, I turned down their offer because their price was too low. In the end, the owner of Hugo Boss supplemented the offer, doubling the original price, so the museum could acquire the work.

For The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century (1996), after a series of complex applications to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, I was finally allowed to enter the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, and became the first Chinese passport-holder to do so. In preparation for our visit, my assistant and I assembled hand-held “bombs” stealthily in a Las Vegas casino hotel; we turned cardboard cores of fax paper rolls into firing tubes by filling them with gunpowder taken from firecrackers purchased in Chinatown. That day, the military sent cars to our hotel, escorted us to the site and tracked us closely. When I saw the escorts were not paying attention, I ignited the cardboard tube “bomb” in my hand, – “Bang!” – a small mushroom cloud blew up above my hand, and we immediately took photos of it. We were seized right away. The military at the Nuclear Test Site called their headquarters in Washington D.C., who immediately sent a Humvee car over, rolling in the desert dust with special agents to investigate the explosive materials I used. To the experts who created nuclear and biological weapons, my “bombs” filled with firecracker black powder were nothing but a joke. So they laughed it off.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Painting Chinese Landscape Painting, 2004, rendering Courtesy of Cai Studio
Cai Guo-Qiang, Painting Chinese Landscape Painting, 2004, rendering
Courtesy of Cai Studio

Afterward, a photo of this project was featured on the cover of Art Since 1940, a major book on the history of post-war and contemporary art. On one hand, the work was great fun to make. On the other, it was as though the fire and mushroom clouds that “played out” in the artist’s hand weighed the pros against the cons as well as conflicts created by mankind, from the moment it learned to use fire to the time it possessed nuclear energy.

For me, the project also poked fun at the state of American Art, which gave rise to Land Art and Pop Art. If we were to identify the biggest visual symbol of the 20th century, it would be the mushroom cloud generated by the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb project in the 1940s was known as the Manhattan Project; thus I made mushroom clouds by setting off a number of handheld cardboard “bombs” in front of the twin towers, which would later collapse in 2001 during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Every time I set off a cloud, I checked to make sure there were no police officers around; I would then quickly fire a tube, before sneakily running off to the next place to fire another one. When making art, an artist often has to play hide-and-seek with political, cultural and government institutions. It’s the same in the United States.

“Cultural Melting Bath: Projects for the 20th Century” (1997) was my first major solo exhibition in the U.S. Surrounded by Chinese Taihu rocks, a Jacuzzi hot tub was filled water infused with Chinese herbal medicine. On the side of the bathtub, a prescription detailing the curative effects of the herbs tempted people to jump in. The work caused a lot of trouble for the Queens Museum of Art, the organizer of the exhibition. Putting aside the questionable morals of having many people take off their clothes and bathe together in public, there were live birds in the installation, and their droppings posed a health risk. Viewers could easily grasp the symbolism in this work: it represented a melting pot society, like that of New York, where people of kinds mix and mingle. When you choose to enter the bathtub, you cannot choose your companions or discriminate against them for their race, gender and age. However, even though people were moved by the concept of the work, there had to be someone to take responsibility for the liabilities related to the work. The museum, and the government or corporate sponsors take on a risk; artists need to understand that, and they must shoulder their share of that responsibility. Visitors should be responsible for themselves, as well, when they voluntarily enter the bathtub. [Throughout my career,] I have repeatedly found myself in similar situations.

In 1996, I created an installation at MoMA PS1 out of my “mushroom cloud project.” Nearly two hundred live crabs crawled on sea sand, which covered the floor of the gallery. Upon entering the space, visitors were faced with two options: either get pinched by the crabs or kill the crabs by stepping on them. At the time, the museum and the police were confronted with great pressure from animal protection organizations. On one hand, they had to respect their right to protest; on the other hand, they also had to protect the freedom of artistic expression as covered by the Constitution. After several days of intense negotiation, I made a compromise by putting a notice outside the gallery, explaining that the crabs were purchased in Chinatown – had they not been used to create art, they would have been eaten. To seem earnest, I even let the protesters know that everyday I poured seawater, with its nutritious germs, over the sand that hosted the crabs!

In 1998, Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows was exhibited at MoMA PS1. I transported a sailing boat from my hometown Quanzhou, and I pierced it with over 3000 arrows. At the end of the boat, there was a small Chinese national flag, rustling in the wind blown by an electric fan. The work illustrated that when an ancient culture turns into an emerging global power, it will be challenged by existing superpowers and their values. The work represents a nation bruised and battered, yet laden with fruit ready to be harvested. Feathers of the arrows resemble open wings that take the boat soaring into the air. It is another politically sensitive work with dark humor.

Holland Cotter, art critic of The New York Times, commented in one article that Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows reflected an obvious nationalism and anti-Western attitude; in another, he enthusiastically commended MoMA for acquiring the piece. It shows that, here [in the U.S.], political sensitivity and divergence do not necessarily affect people’s identification with the expression of the work. At the time, my series of works, with their use of materials, treatment of gallery space, and allegorical narrative, managed to create a tension with the New York art world.

In 2000, when [Jane Farver, one of] the curators of the Whitney Biennial [that year] called and invited me to participate in the exhibition, I told her upfront that I am not an American citizen. She replied that starting that year, any artist could participate in the show as long as they are active in the U.S. So I created How is Your Feng Shui: Year 2000 Project for Manhattan. I turned the museum into a gallery that sold 99 stone lions, with prices ranging from USD 500 to 1000. However, only people who lived in Manhattan could apply to purchase the work; they also had to explain what kind of feng shui problems they faced at home. On the three computers in the exhibition, I displayed the twenty most common feng shui problems in Westerners’ homes, letting visitors know their circumstances and habits better. Even though most people saw it as a good opportunity to collect my art, their concerns needed to be legitimate; regardless of whether they were wealthy collectors or museum trustees, I had to visit their home first to check their feng shui before they could purchase the work. I transported the lions to each home and placed it in the correct direction. Just like that, the number of lions at the museum kept reducing, one by one, as they were moved to various homes over the course of the exhibition. Meanwhile, on the map of Manhattan by the entrance of the exhibition gallery, red dots marking the location of each buyer’s home increased, resembling the red dots on labels indicating sold works at galleries. At the end of the exhibition, only about eighty stone lions were sold after over 400 house visits. As I recall, in the dozen or so reviews of this work, over half of them were criticaThe 9/11 attacks made me realize that I was not just a guest in New York; rather, the city had become my home. It was a turning point. For a long time after 9/11, I noticed that the diverse and critical voices commenting on current politics – a tradition of American culture – were missing. Perhaps it was because America had become victim of severe trauma. The terrorist attack was indeed unforgivable. However, American intellectuals seemed overly biased, and they appeared to lack the due self-examination and self-criticism on the causes and consequences of the attacks. As a result, I created Inopportune for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004 – a piece that was not very politically correct.

Multiple rotated cars, with neon light tubes extending beyond them, referenced the explosion of a vehicle. The lights of varying colors flashed at different speeds, as if conveying a sense of helplessness – “How I wish nothing had happened, and none of these were true” – and a solemn yet somber sense of utopianism. Next to the installation was a video, which showed a car exploding in the hustle and bustle of Times Square, while the pedestrians turned a blind eye to it.

Not surprisingly, the museum’s board of trustees was divided on whether they should exhibit the work. After an afternoon of intense debate, the decision to present the work was passed by a single vote. Every trustee came to congratulate me afterward; now that the decision was made, they pledged to support the show! Later on, the work toured to various museums around the world; it is now hung in the lobby of Seattle Art Museum as part of its permanent collection. Although I am never happy with the museum’s wall text, as Western tendencies for political correctness means the sensitivity of the piece is usually diluted, I believe that once produced, an artwork leaves an objective existence for the present and for the future. One of the appeals in an artwork lies in that it can be examined and discussed at different times from different angles.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Transparent Monument,2006, installation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art PHOTO: Hiro Ihara Courtesy of Cai Studio
Cai Guo-Qiang, Transparent Monument,2006, installation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
PHOTO: Hiro Ihara
Courtesy of Cai Studio’

In 2006, one of the major works in my solo exhibition “Transparent Monument” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a glass wall approximately five-meter high that stood on the rooftop of the building. Behind the transparent glass was the skyline of Manhattan. However, some birds couldn’t fly past the wall…

Back to 2001, America experienced great grief after 9/11, and fireworks displays were out of the question. The following year, MoMA (the organizer) and I approached the government of New York City to ask if we could explode a Transient Rainbow in the sky of New York to symbolize hope; the explosion was approved. The 15-second explosion event attracted tens of thousands of people; the streets and subways fully packed. People needed this rainbow. Since then, the [socio-political] criticality in my work has gradually weakened. In 2003, I was permitted to create a series of signal tower fireworks along several miles and a giant Light Cycle above Central Park in the middle of Manhattan. Unfortunately, on the day of the event, the police received a call; the caller claimed that a time bomb was buried in the tunnel underneath the reservoir dam, where tens of thousands of firing mortars were stored. Imagine – if the bomb were set off, tens of thousands of the firing mortars falling on their sides would be ignited, exploding and “finishing off” the viewers on the spot, one row after another. Naturally, the police closed the venue and searched the underground tunnel thoroughly for several hours. Finally, after a long and unbearable wait, the police finally declared that nothing was found; I couldn’t help thinking – this must have been a prank pulled by some other artist!

By then, it was impossible to finish connecting the wires of over 10,000 mortars. Things got worse; that night, there was a sudden downpour right before the explosion project was due to take place. Hundreds of thousands of spectators, including the Mayor of New York, were as wet as drowned rats. In the penthouses surrounding Central Park, a thousand prominent chefs prepared a big fundraising gala for the 150th anniversary of the park. The guests expected to see fireworks, but they couldn’t see much due to the pouring rain and heavy smoke. Even though the explosion project was eventually realized, the effect was rather disappointing. For a long time after this, I felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t quite face the organizers at the Central Park Conservancy and Creative Time.

The Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego holds an annual one-day air show for the public. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the site to see fighter jets, bomber planes, and paratroopers perform. The show is like a Hollywood war movie with deafening noises that shake the ground. In 2004, when I was invited by the San Diego Museum of Art for an exhibition, I proposed to make a traditional Chinese landscape painting with six fighter jets as part of the intensely spectacular military air show. Two of them would paint mountains with smoke while the other four would make a river and waterfall. To help present my idea better, the organizer found six T-34 planes that dated from World War II, to paint the landscape in a slow and graceful way.

Everything looked fine during the rehearsal. On the day of the show, the six fighter jets were flashing lights as they approached from afar, waiting for the previous aircraft to finish its performance. The performance program said the plane in front of us was to fly 10,000 feet high into the sky, then turn off its engine and start free-falling. As it fell, the plane would continuously deploy “fireworks” to deceive oncoming missiles, causing them to trail the wrong target. The plane was to look like a wounded bird falling down with its wings open. Just when it was about to hit the ground, the plane would restart its engine and pull itself back up into the sky. The cycle would repeat several times, demonstrating how the pilot was trained to escape missile attacks by turning off the engine. I imagined the plane to be so agile that it would almost look like dancing!

According to the original plan, the plane was supposed to perform three repetitions before it finished its show. Otherwise, the fighter jets would fly over to the performing spot. The plane caught us by surprise by doing another fall from an even higher altitude. Only this time, the front of the plane did not pull up in time. “Bang!” The plane exploded when it hit the ground. Engulfed in flames, the fuselage left a long burnt black track on the ground. A girl next to me fainted right away after witnessing the scene. Someone told me that she was the pilot’s fiancée. A rescue helicopter swiftly arrived at the scene of the accident. I noticed the stretcher carrying the body did not head straight to the helicopter; soon it became obvious that the pilot died. I was curious to see how Americans would respond to the situation: everyone stood there solemnly in silence, as they watched life stories both fictitious and real play out in front of them. The public announcer tried to console everyone by saying that the pilot had been sent to the hospital and that investigators were looking into whether the accident was caused by human or mechanical failure. The remaining performances were postponed for the following day. The next day, the newspaper published the pilot’s obituary. Several hundred thousands of people returned to the air base for the performance. Everybody observed a moment of silence to mourn the pilot’s death. The show started over, beginning with my work. Six fighter jets slowly depicted a landscape image in the sky with smoke. After the performance, thunderous bomber planes broke the peace of the sky. They kept dropping firebombs, one by one, carpet-bombing as rows of giant fireballs swept through the land. With the hails of bombs, everything happened, as it should, with the exception of the performance that ended with the accident, the cause of which was still under investigation.

I have to admit that these factors and experiences in America have influenced my art. To some extent, people have neglected the Americanization of my work.

Current affairs, politics and history often inspire my artistic creations. But to me, what matters more is whether this kind of stimulus is capable of producing sparks of artistic expression. My creations have to excite me at the mere thought of them, and I have to look forward to seeing them myself. When asked to explain the political connotations of my works, I often appear reluctant and hesitant, or I offer seemingly positive explanations. However, if my work manages to generate some social or political meaning, it is a consequence of my creation, not my intent. There is a saying, “Art is meant for history.” By history, I reckon it is referring to the “history of art,” rather than the “history of politics.” It seems only Chinese people exaggerate Picasso’s political passion in his art, simply because he created Guernica. In fact, Picasso relished more in the fun of making art and was only playing around with art history. After MoMA returned Guernica to Spain, visitors can instead focus more on the artistic expressiveness in Picasso’s works!

Sometimes I feel that people have overlooked the political connotations behind my works, because they are visually compelling, and tend to make viewers “get carried away” – viewers end up concentrating on the appearance and disregard the meaning. That is fine, because political connotations have never been the purpose of my creations. Artists can’t expect to get everything. Some Chinese artists have been relentlessly pursuing the purity of materials and forms, which is rare in Mainland China. Regrettably, however, the public still pays more attention to the political issues in their works.

The way I see it, after an artist has lived and created works in a place for a period of time, the legacy he leaves in the end are his perseverance, his artistic expressiveness, and the interactions between him, the local society, the art circle, and that period of history. After all, the work stems from the artist himself, rather than the behavior of a nation or an ethnic group in the world.

Please excuse me for the self-contradictory and seemingly irrelevant answers. Let’s just say I’m getting older, so I am taking every chance to “brag about a hero’s past glory.” Ha!

Cai Guo-Qiang

January, 2014