Cai Guo-Qiang - the most inspiring artist you haven't heard of...


There are many people I admire in this life, one of them is Cai Guo-Qiang. Cai is a multi-media artists born and trained in China, who later moved to Japan before settling in New York.  His work takes the form of drawing, installations, video and performance art. 

After watching a documentary on his life; Sky Ladder my admiration for him just reached new heights. I am impressed by his curiosity and his ability to push boundaries and reimagine what art is. His contribution to contemporary art, not just in China, is immense. His spirit of breaking away from conventions and opposing them is an inspiration. 

His gunpowder explosion paintings are among my favorite; exploding gunpowder on a canvass and creating something beautiful and meaningful in that process. In ancient Chinese philosophy gunpowder was known as ‘fire medicine’ and believed to have healing properties (e.g. a very specific type of yellow gunpowder called ‘realgar’ can be used for detoxification & reducing inflammation). Using gunpowder to make art is a process of deconstruction and construction, or more accurately; construction through deconstruction. 

This is him;

Through touching and drawing with gunpowder, it becomes a conversation and connection with nature because it is a natural material. I'll throw some here and a bit there, it’s a dialogue between the gunpowder and sheet of paper. It’s like flirting.” 

I love this idea of the anti-method, if I can call it that; the realization that some limitations of life as laid out to you are not constant and don’t have to apply to you. Realising that you can define and redefine what art is and what it means, while in the process challenging the notions of average, one-size fits all and linear approaches. Apparently one of Cai’s friends once told him he believed Cai had the capacity to one day become a great artist, but that even then he would not surpass Picasso. Cai’s response was; ‘why can’t I surpass Picasso?’ It is this kind of open mindedness, lack of rigidity in thinking and a belief in the possible that underpins Cai’s great work. He may not be as well known as Picasso but in my mind, he far…..far surpassed him as an artist in terms of vision, technical skill and execution. 

His most ambitious project was what he termed ‘Sky Ladder’. It took him roughly 20 years to realize this project. He was fascinated by the idea of space and the knowledge that man has reached the moon before. Knowing that he probably would not make it out to space himself, he set himself an incredibly difficult task of creating a ladder using fireworks, that would connect this world to the one above. This was to be a fireworks display that would resemble a ladder connecting to the sky above. After 3 failed attempts, Sky Ladder finally launched in 2015 just a month before his 100 year old grandmother (for whom this project was for) died. This is him on the project:

Behind Sky Ladder lies a clear childhood dream of mine. Despite all life’s twists and turns, I have always been determined to realize it. My earlier proposals were either more abstract or ceremonial. Sky Ladder today is tender, and touches my heart deeply: it carries affection for my hometown, my relatives and my friends. In contrast to my other attempts, which set the ignition time at dusk, this time the ladder rose toward the morning sun, carrying hope. For me, this not only means a return but also the start of a new journey.

Cai is one of the few artists who is able to challenge the status quo and what is conceivable, but at the same time, he also has an ability to serve that status quo through creating work that can serve as entertainment. Few people are able to live with contractions in life. 

“His art is unique,  and once it is seen, it is never fortgotten” - Bloomberg

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