Indubitably, Cai Guo-Qiang is a rebel of an artist. Without commercial gallery representation, he continues to manage the vision, execution, funding, pricing and sale of his work with the help of his skillful and familial studio team. During a recent artist talk that coincided with the opening weekend of his show, Sky Ladder at MOCA Los Angeles – Geffen Contemporary, he shared his humble beginnings and penchant for the unknown. Jeffrey Deitch moderated and Chinyang Wong translated the conversation on the artist’s behalf.
The speakers were situated to the left, facing the projector screen that presented a slideshow of images that accompanied Cai Guo-Qiang’s introduction about his memories as a child, creative influences, journey from East to West, and cosmic ambition. Deitch opened and described Cai Guo-Qiang’s current work as a “childhood dream of defying gravity.” The artist stood in front of the crowd, book-ended by his gunpowder drawings (Desire for Zero Gravity, 2012 and Childhood Spaceship, 2012) and graced by a hanging field of crop circles. Below is an abridged version of the artist talk.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s (CGQ) hometown is Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, which he claimed as the start of the maritime Silk Road. He graduated from Shanghai Theater Academy and majored in Stage Design during China’s Cultural Revolution. He thanked Jeffrey Deitch (JD) for the introduction and began to talk through his slides.
My earliest encounter of Land Art was experiencing Chairman Mao’s Mountain. Its gigantic dimension gave me wonder.
CGQ: My dad’s interest in history and calligraphy showed me his lifelong dedication and enthusiasm to both disciplines. My family environment was similar to an art salon because of my dad’s circle of friends who are mostly artists. I am influenced by his fountain pen drawings of landscapes on backs of matchboxes–tall mountains and great oceans. When I asked him about the origin of the place, he told me it was our family’s fishing village. When I finally visited, it was nothing like what my father drew. That’s when I realized that my father was representing his sentiment.
CGQ: Childhood memories are bonded in my current work, boats are prevalent because of my homeland. I remember the sensation of stepping into a boat being very unique and different. In high school, I started to take on Western style, medium and subject. Kandinsky influenced me. My self-portrait as a rebel expressed my dissatisfaction with the political environment at the time. During my stage design studies, I incorporated elements of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. I began to pay attention to spatial relations, theatricality and temporality. Stage design gave me the fundamentals of installation art, being that there were no contemporary art schools. It was here where I began to work in various mediums and manage a stage team.
During the end of his years at the Shanghai Theater Academy, he became more spontaneous. He visited every heritage site in his country with his future wife, Hong Hong Wu before he made his journey to Japan.
In order for me to be in the right mindset to leave China, I had to visit the farthest corners of my country.
CGQ: I am not very daring when it comes to painting. I was looking for a medium that would allow me to let go of myself. I started to use gunpowder. I let a pigeon walk all over my canvas on the ground. His footprints would look like leaves, which made me draw inspiration from prehistorical China.
CGQ: My friend helped me get to Japan. I would make small paintings to survive there. They were easy to sell being that they were landscapes and depicted the Chinese circus. I kept it deep in my heart that I knew what I was aiming for. I ended up meeting the owner of the largest firework company in Japan, which gave me access to gunpowder. I started to study the property of paper with the explosion and this led me to contemporary art.
In the mid-eighties, Cai Guo-Qiang’s success in Japan began to peak. His work was received so well, that the Japanese questioned their nationals and asked why can’t Japanese artists accomplish what he was able to do with his art. While their fervor grew, the artist’s dwindled. Towards the early-90s he felt that he was no longer challenging himself and again it was time to leave. In 1995, he left Japan and began to create extraterrestrial Land Art in Europe. During this time, he was able to meet one of his heroes, Stephen Hawking, a British physicist and cosmologist. Towards the end of his slideshow, he showed images of this work and important portraits of people that influenced him. Jeffrey Deitch joined Cai Guo-Qiang and his translator, shortly thereafter.
Creation can come out of destruction.
JD: It is remarkable of you to think of yourself as an artist during the challenging times of China’s Cultural Revolution. Were you inspired by it or did you react against it?
CGQ: When I was I child, during school, I was interrupted in the middle of destroying property. Creation can come out of destruction. Human beings are capable of being violent. Growing up I saw myself as a rebel…I would listen to Taiwanese radio. I am always curious about worlds other than my own. Through my stage design background I learned how to mobilize crowds. Having grown up in a Socialist regime, I saw the value of collectivism, but very much appreciated individualism.
JD: Why did you study design vs. painting?
CGQ: The process is complicated. Teenagers would get sent to labor camps. I made a decision to work for Mao’s propaganda so I wouldn’t go to the camp, and that led me to stage design.
JD: Tell me about the Western influence in your work. What was available to you?
CGQ: My province was a port. People who returned to their homeland brought media. The biggest lesson I learned from Western art, was that you can really mess around with your work. I also learned about Joseph Beuys, and this was a bit of a Dadaist moment for me. I realized that I can do what I wanted and whatever I wanted.
JD: Talk about your move to the United States.
CGQ: I wanted to extract myself from the East to give myself time to develop my art. I was more popular in Japan and I was no longer questioning my art making, so I wanted to get new energy to gain a different perspective.
Cai Guo-Qiang changed the flow of the conversation and started asking Jeffrey Deitch questions. He also acknowledged Deitch’s effort of bringing him to MOCA Los Angeles – Geffen Contemporary and allowing him to blow up the side of the building for his piece, Mystery Circle, 2012.
CGQ: What do you think of my work?
JD: You are an artist who redefines what an artist work could be, even though you were far removed from the focal point of the art world conversation. You have a unique ability to fuse Eastern and Western tradition despite your origin.
CGQ: I have another curveball for you. I steered clear from commercial galleries, away from gallery representation. What do you think about that?
JD: You are “completely independent.” You were able to finance this work and its production on your own. You did not give into the 50/50 compensation structure…The heart of your work is your studio, the kitchen of a coherent group of spirited individuals.
CGQ: Thank you for complimenting my studio and previously mentioning that it is the best you have ever seen…My studio is in much of the sense my family, which is a continuation of my studio culture. We work very closely together. They even know my personal life and record its relevant details in a studio handbook.
It feels like I’m making love.
JD: You have an astonishing ambition. Look at this exhibition, you didn’t have to have 40,000 rockets…You have pushed yourself to create the largest hanging sculpture and the longest gunpowder drawings.
They concluded their conversation and took a few questions from the crowd. The seats were filled and a few people in the audience stood. They thanked each other again and the crowd for attending. Pulp Lab approached Cai Guo-Qiang, commented on the symmetry of his father’s matchbox drawings with his explosion series amidst nature and the public setting, and asked, “what are you feeling when the explosion is taking place?” He answered, “it feels like I’m making love.”
April 8-July 7, 2012
MOCA Los Angeles – Geffen Contemporary
152 North Central Avenue
Los Angeles – Little Tokyo