Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, China. His father ran a book store. Cai was able to read widely, including books that would be forbidden under Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1967). Then Cai had to help his father burn books. He received a BFA (1985) in set design from the Shanghai Drama Institute. He began making gunpowder drawings in1984. Why gunpowder? Quanzhou was located across the straits that separated mainland China from Taiwan. Cai recalled, “I grew up with gunpowder. They (Chinese Nationalist) were always bombing us and we them. It was a part of my life.” Fireworks also were and are a part of every Chinese festival.
Primeval Fireball (1991) (exhibition in Tokyo) includes several gunpowder drawings from The Projects for Projects series exhibit. Each piece is titled and falls into Cai’s category of Projects for Extraterrestrials. Cai perfected the technique of spreading paper on the floor, sprinkling gunpowder as desired, placing a second sheet of paper on top to control the fire, and igniting it. Over time, he developed great control over the process and added colored gunpowder that was used in fireworks.
“Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters” (1993) is No. 10, and it is the first large work from Cai’s Project for Extraterrestrials. Charges were placed across 6.2 miles of the Gobi Desert at the western end of the Great Wall. Small charges were placed 1.86 miles apart, and larger charges .62 miles apart. At dusk on February 27, 1993, the first charge was ignited and the remaining fired in sequence over a period of fifteen minutes. Forty thousand residents and tourists witnessed the performance.
“Transient Rainbow” (2002), a performance on the East River on June 29, 2002, in New York City was sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. One thousand, three-inch, multi-colored peony fireworks were fitted with computer chips. They were set off at 9:30 PM. The “Transient Rainbow” lasted 15 seconds.
“Footprints of History” (2008) was Cai’s spectacular firework display over the Bird Cage Stadium at the Beijing Olympics. Twenty-nine footsteps were set off in sequence. They extended 9 ½ miles from Tiananmen Square to the Olympic Stadium and lasted 63 seconds.
In 2009 the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited of Cai’s gunpowder drawings to honor Anne d’Harnoncourt, the director of the museum who died unexpectedly in June 2008. The exhibition opened on December 11, 2009, with “Fallen Blossoms” (2009) (60’ x 85’), an explosion in front of the façade of the Museum. It was intended as a gift to the City and was witnessed by a large audience. The blossom was made of fuses placed on a metal net attached to a scaffold. The title was taken from a Chinese proverb that references the great loss experienced when a life is cut short. Anne d’Harnonocourt was sixty-four years old when she died.
Cai has received many awards and honors, among them the Praemium Imperiale (2012) that recognizes lifetime achievement in the arts, a category not covered by the Nobel Prize. He also received the first United States Department of State Medal of Arts for commitment to international cultural exchange. Although Cai lives in New York City, his works are commissioned internationally. His works deal with such human issues as climate change, the pandemic, increased national conflicts, and materialism.
“Remembrance” (2014) is the fireworks component of a larger Cai exhibition titled The Ninth Wave, held at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai. It is China’s first contemporary art museum, opened in 2012. The $64 million cost of the Museum, was paid for the by Shanghai government. The Power Station is located on the Huangpu River, and “Remembrance” was performed from a long barge.
“Black Wave” (2023) is the first phase of When the Sky Blossoms with Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) (2023). It was performed on Yotsukura Beach in Iwaki City, Japan, to recognize and remember the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami that took place there in 2011. The first sequence titled “Black Wave” was to recall and remember the pain of the past.
“Memorial Monument” (2023), the second phase, recognizes the loss suffered during the earthquake and tsunami, the COVID pandemic, and wars.
“When the Sky Blossoms with Sakura” (2023) was the third phase of the performance that filled the sky with beautiful pink blossoms. The cherry blossom is the unofficial flower of Japan, and the Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual event in Japan. Cherry blossoms are symbols of spring and renewal of life; the festival it is a time for family and friends, for joy, and for renewed vitality. Cherry blossoms last only two weeks. Their arrival is time for great joy and reflection.
The entire performance lasted thirty minutes. Forty thousand choreographed fireworks were launched from the water. The display was 1312 feet wide and 427 feet high. On the day of the event, June 26, 2023, Cai commented on the significance of the work: “Thank you to the beautiful sea and sky of Yotsukura, and the rare cooperation and companionship of the sound of the wind and waves in this worrisome June…Mankind today is facing various challenges such as coexisting with the pandemic, economic decline, deglobalization, and increased national and cultural conflicts. Through the sakura in the sky, I was expressing the story of the friendship between the people of Iwaki and me, which transcends politics and history, and I hope that the artwork will inspire the world with faith and hope.”
Cai lived in Iwaki, Japan from 1986 to 1994, and he had many friends. His first major performance in Japan in 1994 was in this Iwaki location. The Sakura blooming in the sky echoes the initiative in 2015 by Cai and his friends, who called themselves “10,000” (the many or infinite), to create the Project to Plant Ten Thousand Cherry Blossom Trees.
“From gunpowder, from its very essence, you can see so much of the power of the universe—how we came to be. You can express these grand ideas about the cosmos. But at the same time, we live in the world where explosions Kill people, and then you have this other immediate context for the work.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.