Looking at Earth as an Alien.
Interview by:Kenji Ichii(head editor)
Footprints of an uncertain creature, either human or alien, walked across the sky during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The artwork by Cai Guo-Qiang has made a great impact in the world.
His solo exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Spring opened April 20, 2012 at Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou. Located south of the Yangtze River and sharing a culturally common atmosphere to his hometown of Quanzhou, we interviewed him during the final stages of exhibition preparation.
Ichii: These works are so dynamic. It feels like a force coming down from the sky.
Cai: Does it?
Ichii: What is wonderful about pictures of mountains and water is that they are full of energy. The energy of nature gets captured on the paper with gunpowder. If you say the explosion of gunpowder was ‘Yin’, the one left on paper would be ‘Yang’. Like Chinese science, there is ‘Yin and Yang’ in the I Ching. It gave me an impression that qi descended from the sky while you were in communication with the universe.
Cai: That’s exactly right. In the end I did express water with gunpowder. I expressed energy of waves and their movement in “Kanchou-zu” (English title: Tides). To prepare for this work, I went to the Qiantang River, and I was overwhelmed by its huge scale and speed. The currents at the Qiantang River estuary are the fastest in the world. When the river empties into the sea, the seawater flows backwards into the river, forming enormous waves. The waves can be more than ten meters high. West Lake, the work made on silk, shows the softness of the Lake. It is full of water and willows. That work is also made by exploding gunpowder directly on silk.
The theme of the Xiao Bai Hua (Small Lilies) series on the other side of the wall was based on the young female actors in a famous theatre troupe of the same name in Zhejiang, because the beautiful scenes with water and willows match the young women in the theatre troupe. They will perform at to the opening ceremony tonight. They’re full of youth and beauty.
Ichii: You graduated from the Shanghai Theater Academy, and you painted a portrait called Samayoi (1985) a bit before you came to Tokyo. What is the difference between those artworks back then and now?
Cai: When I first arrived in Japan, I wondered what types of works I should sell to make a living. I had heard that Japanese people like Beijing operas characters and landscapes of Guilin. I also made small oil paintings and sold them to friends.
Ichii: You have played the violin, acted in plays and painted oil paintings since you were little. The exhibition this time reflects your experiences with every kind of arts.
Ichii: When I see Tides, I can picture the water in the Qiantang River rising gradually to become a dragon flying up into the sky.
Cai: Like a head of dragon. The water under the most turbulent currents is actually very calm. It’s like a huge earthquake. There is a dead silence right before an earthquake, and before a tsunami as well.
Ichii: It’s scary.
Cai: That is why it is quiet before these kind of things happen.
Ichii: Before an explosion, do you draw a thin layer with gunpowder?
Cai: Yes. I draw a rough shape of waves.
Ichii: If Tides is Yang, then West Lake would be Yin. It wouldn’t surprise me if they appeared in Eight Views of Xiaoxiang. They remind me of the great works of landscape painting from the Song and Yuan dynasties, and they share similarities with famous ink paintings on silk from that period.
Cai: The clouds and fog were dancing because of the winds.
Ichii: The misty drizzles and air currents filled the composition with a high intensity.
Cai: Even when you tried to draw a mountain, a wind blows in the end.
Ichii: You say that there is a quiet presence under a hard energy. It looks like time has stopped suddenly and time is now infinite. How water looks here is different, but it’s so attractive.
Cai: How does one express West Lake three dimensionally from 360 degrees? A typical painting only shows the water horizon and the riverbanks. My challenge this time is to put people into a 360-degree panorama.
Ichi: And this is the project. You used all four sides of this room to draw the landscape with streaks of gunpowder. In the middle of this room there is silk on the floor to represent water in the lake. You can enjoy the scenery when you walk on the boardwalk in front of the walls. It is a perspective from the universe that you can see all around you at the same time.
Asian outlook on the cosmos
Ichii: You once had a series Project for Extraterrestrials. where you managed to catch the attention of not only humans, but aliens as well. One can sense your unique vision as an artist from the works.
Cai: I am always communicating with an invisible world and working with the uncontrollability and spontaneity of gunpowder to create artwork. There are many types of invisible energies, such as nature, and deceased ancestors that we cannot see. Hangzhou has a strong connection to Su Shi and Bai Juyi, and they also played a large part in the designing the environment around West Lake. Various scholar-officials enthusiastically promoted the arts of this city when they governed this town, and I communicated with the energy they left behind.
Ichii: Nature and history blended other.
Cai: So when I create works, I tap into all kinds of energies from the invisible world. It is an Asian outlook on the cosmos.
When Westerners consider the universe, they think of ‘space:’ the solar system, the Milky Way and geophysics on Earth. Asian people, however, consider all these as only part of the universe. Additionally, there are pressure points and energy meridians inside our bodies as well as feng shui. We consider them all as part of the universe.
Thus, the values in my art differ from the Western perspective. Therefore when my art was introduced to the West, even though Westerners are impressed with the visual power and the energy in my works, they commented that I am different. In the end, it is because I have a different outlook on the universe.
Ichii: Anti-materialism, right? As you mentioned feng shui is part of the work; I can feel the spirituality of nature, a new hope that sprouts silently if I sit in the middle. That is a gift from you, Cai san. And it is like a gift from an alien to an earthling.
Cai: Perhaps I was influenced a little by a dry garden in Kyoto and injected spirit into it [laughs].
What is interesting is the work here creates a huge space that cannot be touched. All you can do is to look at it. As you look at the work, you think about your hometown. This is a uniquely Asian outlook. It is important to keep a distance. If you get too close, you tire of the artwork.
Ichii: I see. If you keep a distance, focus your thoughts, and use your spiritual energies to quietly go around the surroundings, when you look into the space, it is as if you can see into the universe. Even though it is nighttime, you can still see the blue sky. It is as if day and night are as one, and we are in another world that transcends beyond time and space.
Cai: Yes. And when I express artificial structures such as buildings, bridges and streets, I merely outline them lightly.
Ichii: There is something in common with the world of Tao.
Cai: I really like the idea of Tao. In Yuan dynasty, Taoism influenced many people including scholars and artists. They were the avant-gardes back then. There used to be distinguished art academies in the Song dynasty. What they expressed was content lives, beautiful landscapes and architecture in the capital city. They are flawless.
However by Yuan dynasty, everyone started to express their individual worlds and their destinies, such as fear, or their lonely path in life when they are in nature, They express unique individualism in their works. The reason why that era is important for Chinese people is because they expressed their individual values and their own worlds.
Ichii: The demise of the Song dynasty came with the invasion of Mongolians, and the Han people were conquered by foreigners, so they had to do something in their individual realms.
Ichii: The Yuan dynasty was such a tough period.
Cai: They dug into their own worlds because they could not antagonize society. Art, in fact, is fragile, but it has an infinite power to transcend ages and it can touch our hearts. No matter which country or era we are in, distinguished people are all lonely. You can communicate with people across ages when you can earnestly express an individual’s real emotions.
Ichii: The Internet has made this world smaller. Humans have atomic energy as well. Through you, I have learnt to re-evaluate humans from the eyes of extraterrestrials, and go beyond the earth with the power of imagination.
Cai: Thank you very much. I have grown with Japanese arts and Japanese people because I lived in Japan for a long time. I have grown in Japan, especially.
Ichii: You lived there when you were about 28 through 37.
Cai: And then I went to New York City.
Ichii: With a fellowship from ACC (Asian Cultural Council).
Cai: In Japan, when I saw the beauty of the countryside and its surreally poetic landscape, I learnt how important it was to keep a certain distance from reality. Japanese artists hardly express social problems directly. Keeping a distance is beautiful. This gave me a deep realization.
What is more, I started to consider both the East and the West when I create art. It led me to think about large-scale projects: what if I look at humans from outer space? So I started the extraterrestrials project in Japan. I went beyond Asia, Europe and other western countries. I wondered if my work would be better understood across the world, or even the universe, if I looked past the present, into a more distant future or a greater space, and communicated with worlds unbeknownst to us?
Ichii: You were the first Chinese person to visit a nuclear testing site in Nevada! Your experience there had a huge impact on you, and it made you start a new series of works.
Cai: I made mushroom clouds as works, and received the Hiroshima Prize. [laughs]
Ichii: It was extremely sensational, but atomic power is also energy from the nature. This time you brought a huge field of energy into feng shui, both Yin and Yang. And not long ago, you attempted to literally raise a ladder to the sky when you had your solo exhibition Sky Ladder at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Cai: I used a lot of toy rockets. [laughs] I used 40,000 rockets to make the explosion event Mystery Circle, and had them explode at the same time. It is fun to watch on a video. The audience was impressed as well.
Ichii: Not only with the extraterrestrials from that time, you also brought a gift to Southern China, to the city of Hangzhou. It’s hard to see Earth when you are in it. And it is always hard to understand something when you are part of it. If you go outside the box and use a different point of view to observe things, you can see the problems clearly.
A poet’s perspective
Ichii: Mao Zedong said, “To rebel is justified”.
Cai: That influenced me when I was young.
Ichii: It’s a political way of thinking, but you saw it from an artist’s perspective. To me, it feels like you inherited Mao Zedong’s vision as a poet but what do you think about it?
Cai: That’s partially right. It basically has nothing to do with humans, or you can say I am more interested in an infinite, omnipotent power. In the morning before I started making this work, I offered incense at a famous temple in Hangzhou called Ling Yan Temple, praying that the deities would ensure the production process went smoothly. The most incredible thing was, it always stopped raining every time I ignited the drawing.
Ichii: It stopped raining?
Cai: Sometimes rays of sun peeked through.
Ichii: The sky made the rain stop.
Cai: Yes. During the Qing Ming season (late spring), it rained almost everyday. But it would rain on the shores, and not in the middle of the lake where I was making the work. A platform measuring 30×50 meters was built in the middle of West Lake, so I could make the drawing with silk and gunpowder. But the rain would stop there.
It is crucial to be humble and respectful towards invisible natural energies.
Ichii: You sound like a modern Laozi on Tao. Your artworks give a sense of the infinite, which is incredible. It seems to be a world created by a power from the sky, rather than a world of your own.
Cai: On the West Lake, I collaborated with masters from the past. There were many invisible masters behind me.
I brought a lot of willows to the museum for the opening ceremony today.
Ichii: The grassy scent of willows is wonderful.