Guggenheim Museum Presents "Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe"


Comprehensive Survey of the Chinese-Born Artist Opening February 2008

(NEW YORK, NY – September 6, 2007) – Opening February 22, 2008, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present the most comprehensive survey to date of the innovative body of work of Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced tsai gwo chang). This forthcoming exhibition, Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe is organized by the Guggenheim and represents the museum’s first solo show devoted to a Chinese-born artist. Designed as a spectacular site-specific installation within the museum’s galleries, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rotunda, the exhibition will present a chronological and thematic survey that charts the artist’s creation of a distinctive visual and conceptual language across four mediums: gunpowder drawings; site-specific explosion events; large-scale installations; and social projects. Featuring over 80 works from the 1980s to the present—selected from major public and private collections in the U.S., Europe, and Asia—the exhibition will illuminate Cai’s significant formal and conceptual contributions to contemporary international art practices and social activism.

This exhibition is made possible by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, which promotes the understanding of Chinese arts and culture worldwide.

The exhibition is organized by Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and Alexandra Munroe, Senior Curator of Asian Art, in close collaboration with the artist. Assistant curators Monica Ramirez-Montagut and Sandhini Poddar have provided additional support. Following its New York opening, the exhibition is expected to travel to Beijing to coincide with the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, and to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in spring 2009.

“Cai Guo-Qiang is a transnational artist of extraordinary creative vision,” said Thomas Krens. “The Guggenheim is pleased to present Cai’s retrospective, which examines the full scale and complexity of his art and science of transformation.”

I Want to Believe ™ is used with permission of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Caroline Pfohl-Ho, President of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, said, “The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation is committed to fostering and supporting Chinese arts and culture worldwide. We are delighted to support this first retrospective of Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the most important living Chinese artists and a true global citizen. We share with Cai a similar vision about the importance of creative opportunities for everyone and a commitment to using art for social commentary. Through this exhibition and the educational programs, we hope to help cultivate a deeper understanding of contemporary Chinese art and its creative potential for people around the world.”

Cai Guo-Qiang is internationally recognized as an artist, curator, and creator of large-scale explosion events, who has been active in exhibitions, biennales, and public celebrations around the world for the last twenty years. Born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, in 1957, and a resident of New York since 1995, Cai is acclaimed as a bold originator of new forms of art that use gunpowder to create large-scale “gunpowder drawings” and site-specific “explosion events.” Since the mid-1990s, Cai’s practice has expanded to include interactive installations that often recuperate signs and symbols of Chinese culture and expose the dialectics of artifice and nature, barbarism and culture, localization and globalization. The implications of Cai’s methodology across all media relate his work to conceptual art, performance art, and ephemeral Land Art, but extend each of those practices towards a radically new matrix.

Responding to commissions across the globe, Cai’s work requires collaboration with tens or even hundreds of workers, including his project team, art-world volunteers and local laborers. As a child of China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, Cai explores the relationship between the individual and the collective society. His interrogation of the contradiction between contemporary Chinese individualism and collectivism has set his collaborative practice apart from his contemporaries in the west. As a direct development of this practice, Cai has recently produced so-called “social projects” which include a series of museums in remote, non-art sites like bunkers, where he assumes the role of curator and invites the participation of artists and the local public alike. Cai’s subversive implementation of non-art spaces and local communities involves extraordinary logistical negotiations, relies on the artist’s considerable charisma and mobilization skills, and is infused with an idealism that aspires to claim the public realm as a site for democratic art and power. Cai’s current project in his role as Art Director of Visual and Special Effects and a core member of the creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in the Herzog & de Meuron stadium, which will reach an estimated four billion television viewers, is designed as an art spectacle of unprecedented mass outreach.

Exhibition Overview
The retrospective is designed as a site-specific installation, whose progression of works and compressed aspect will “fill the museum with the power of an explosion.” in Cai’s words. The exhibition focuses on the development and expression of Cai Guo-Qiang’s signature innovation—harnessing gunpowder to create powerful explosions, both as gunpowder drawings on canvas and paper and as explosion events. Three levels of the Guggenheim Rotunda’s ramp will be dedicated to illustrating how the gunpowder drawings cohere with the indoor and outdoor explosion events that Cai has produced in over twenty cities around the world—challenging and expanding the possibilities for ephemeral, site-specific art. Several of Cai’s most important installations that he has created since the early 1990s will occupy another three levels of the Rotunda and three Annex Galleries. Major works that are anticipated to be featured in the exhibition include a version of Inopportune: Stage One (2004), comprised of nine real cars pierced with blinking light tubes to simulate exploding vehicles that will be suspended in the central void of the rotunda; and a restaging of Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard (1999), for which the artist won the Golden Lion Award at the 48th Venice Biennale and which features approximately fifty clay sculptures that will be constructed on-site and allowed to crumble, which are a re-make of an iconic social realist tableaux from the Cultural Revolution era; and An Arbitrary History: River (2001), in which visitors are invited to board a raft and float along a serpentine river constructed of fiberglass, bamboo, and water beneath an assortment of Cai’s past installations that are suspended from the ceiling. The Guggenheim exhibition will examine Cai’s radical methodology within the context of international postmodern art practices, social and geopolitical critiques, and East Asian aesthetics and philosophy, including Maoism.

The exhibition’s subtitle, “I Want to Believe,” exposes the brilliant ambiguities at the core of Cai’s wide-ranging artistic practice. Cai’s object titles often allude to extraterrestrials. “For Cai, art is the experience of believing in something that is unseen, or rather, exists beyond belief,” remarks Alexandra Munroe. Along with extraterrestrials and UFOs, his work freely cites historic tales and folk myths, nuclear apocalypse, and medicinal powers, the Big Bang and “dark matter,” all of which serve in different ways to create structures of non-linear time and de-centered space. In this sense, Cai’s art expresses a metaphysical intelligence and poetic beauty that draw equally from East Asian philosophy and current cosmological science.

The Guggenheim Museum has a special history with Cai Guo-Qiang. In 1996, he was selected as a finalist for the museum’s inaugural Hugo Boss Prize, which is awarded to extraordinary creative figures in contemporary international art. His participation in the Guggenheim’s accompanying exhibition was a catalyst for Cai’s international recognition, and the work he presented, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, is among the highlights of the Guggenheim’s contemporary art collection. The 2008 retrospective of Cai Guo-Qiang is a significant addition to the museum’s highly acclaimed one-person exhibitions and performances dedicated to contemporary artists, which in recent years have included Marina Abramović, Matthew Barney, Daniel Buren, Zaha Hadid, and Richard Prince. The forthcoming retrospective is also important to the Guggenheim Museum’s initiative to further integrate Asian art into its exhibition, collection, and education programs.

Early Works
Cai Guo-Qiang’s early work exhibited at the Guggenheim date from 1985 to 1988 when he first developed the basic methodology and process of his signature gunpowder drawings and explosions. This selection of early works reveal Cai’s progressive search for a practice of art making that directly harnesses the spontaneity of natural forces. Ultimately, he arrived at an art where these natural forces allowed the artist to relinquish control, resulting in compositions formed by the random marks of sparks and smoke.

From the start, Cai sought to connect what he called “the unseen world” to art, linking his practice to a metaphysical study of cosmic meridians of energy currents, primordial states of chaos, and the nature of formless matter. Initially, Cai experimented with laying oil paint on canvas and blasting it with air blown from an electric fan that he held over the canvas’s surface, shaping the movement of paint with the force of wind. In 1984, Cai introduced gunpowder ignited directly on his oil canvases. Gunpowder at that time often came with large portions of realgar, a common explosive that is a basic component of matches and firecrackers. Cai placed these on the surface of the canvas, which he positioned horizontally on the floor. When ignited, first the fuses burned instantly along the cord lines, igniting the gunpowder and creating loud bangs and flashes of fire, which then vanished in clouds of smoke. The result is a textured surface that looks and feels like an explosion—the oil paint on canvas is blackened, charred and erupted, arrested in a state of being expended in a flash. Soon after his move to Japan in 1986, Cai switched from igniting gunpowder on painted canvases to igniting it directly on sheets of Japanese-made paper.

Gunpowder Drawings
Cai Guo-Qiang’s drawings made from igniting gunpowder explosives laid on paper constitute a new medium of contemporary artistic expression. Together with the explosion events to which they are conceptually linked, Cai’s gunpowder drawings convey his central idea of mediating natural energy forces to create works that connect both the artist and the viewer with a primordial state of chaos, contained in the moment of explosion. They also demonstrate his central interest in the relationship of matter and energy; in these works, matter (gunpowder) explodes into energy and reverts to matter in another state (the charred drawing). In this way, they are charts of time, process, and transformation.

Cai’s gunpowder drawing process has been likened to the practice of a shaman who invokes agents of a spirit world to cause a reaction in the material realm. For the drawings, Cai frequently uses sheets of Japanese hemp paper whose manufacture he specially commissions; its fibrous structure withstands and absorbs the impact of the explosion and the incineration of the paper to beautiful effect. Placing these sheets on the floor, he arranges gunpowder fuses of varying potency, loose explosive powders, and cardboard stencils to create silhouetted forms over the paper’s surface. Here and there, he lays wooden boards to effectively disperse the patterns resulting from smoke and the impact of the explosion. He then weights all these elements in place with rocks to intensify the explosion. Once the setup is completed, he ignites a fuse at one end of the work with a stick of burning incense. Then, with loud bangs, the ignited gunpowder rips across the surface of the paper, lighting the array of explosives according to its designated pattern and engaging artist and onlookers in a momentary encounter with the spectacular power of explosive destruction. A second or two later, the paper lies burning in clouds of acrid smoke. Assistants run to stamp out any embers with rags. Finally, the drawing is removed from the floor and hung up vertically for the artist’s inspection.

Cai’s production of gunpowder drawings can be organized into two periods: from his first drawings in 1989 to 1995, when he was living in Japan; and from 1996 through the present, while living in New York. During the Japan period, Cai produced two major series of gunpowder drawings that were directly connected to the development of his explosion events. These are Projects for Extraterrestrials and Projects for Humankind. The majority of the gunpowder drawings—whether a multi-panel folding-screen or a single sheet of paper—were created as diagrams of Cai’s conceptual ideas and proposed visual designs for specific explosions, what scholar Wu Hung refers to as Cai’s “think pieces.” That some projects were ultimately realized while several never were is insignificant in recognizing these drawings as stand-alone works of art. In formal terms, the gunpowder drawings of this period evolved from images of pure abstraction to more representational compositions that suggest physical structures. Since his move to New York in 1995, Cai’s mastery over his materials has resulted in gunpowder drawings that are increasingly complex as both technical and pictorial feats. Working with a wider range of fuse grades and explosive chemicals, some of which he has designed in collaboration with professional pyro-technicians, and using more elaborate stencils and weights to outline forms and to control the explosions, Cai has further established gunpowder drawings as his primary artistic medium.

Explosion Events
China’s most famous invention, gunpowder, literally meaning “fire medicine” in Chinese—which is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur—was originally discovered by Daoist alchemists in search of an imperial “elixir of immortality.” Best known for his explosion events, Cai began using gunpowder and fuse lines to create explosions for public audiences using the ground and existing structures as a framework. These early works lasted between one and fifteen seconds. Since then, Cai’s practice has evolved dramatically. He now produces aerial explosion events that are often developed with professional pyrotechnicians. Most recently the artist has harnessed computerized technology to create more elaborate explosion imagery, whose effects last as long as twenty minutes. The explosion events are usually realized through commissions by museums, art biennials, or national and international agencies. Cai’s explosion events are primarily created with gunpowder while others are designed as celebratory spectacles in the tradition of fireworks displays (Cai derides this term). But they are also contemporary works of art with charged conceptual, allegorical, and metaphorical narrative.

Cai’s explosion events are related in sheer scale to site-specific Land Art projects, where art disrupts the land by employing it to radical aesthetic use. But whereas most Land Art is static and semi-permanent, Cai’s explosion events are spectacularly transient. As time-based works created for live public audiences, Cai’s explosion events operate as performances, whose impact—thunderous bangs, fiery light, smoke, and floating debris—conjures both violent chaos and ritual celebration. And in the tradition of ephemeral art, the explosion events become known only through their documentation—photographs, videos, and drawings.

Cai’s explosion events are often titled by series: Projects for Extraterrestrials; Projects for Humankind; and Projects for the 20th Century. The titles tell us something about the scale and perspective of Cai’s thinking. The giant patterns of fire on earth signify a code, or the aspiration to communicate a code, to “extraterrestrials,” by which Cai means realities or forces that are alien to our mundane existence. By harnessing fire as an ancient and constant element of geological formation, social ritual and religious purification, and life’s destruction, Cai’s explosion events produce, however momentary, an experience of temporal dislocation, a momentary trance when we feel ourselves to be at the beginning and the end of life on earth. The explosion events represent Cai’s central interest in both ancient and modern cosmological science.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s varied art arises directly from his multidisciplinary training. His early studies in stage design influenced his approach to installations, instilling them with a particular temporal and spatial dynamism and performance sensibility. Polemic approaches and politically charged issues, such as conjuring the now-destroyed Berlin Wall in Head On, presenting the horrific explosion of a car bomb through a spectacular play of light and color in Inopportune: Stage One, or embellishing the killing of tigers in Inopportune: Stage Two, are restaged so that their contradictions are made evident and open for public discussion and reflection.

Cai often collaborates with volunteers who operate outside the contemporary art world for the production and implementation of his artwork, thus bringing a dimension of social context into the realm of international art making. For Reflection—A Gift from Iwaki, the local residents of Iwaki, a coastal town in northeastern Japan, who originally excavated the sunken ship, have been invited to New York to install it at the Guggenheim. In Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard, Chinese artists trained in official social realist sculpture will come to New York to replicate the iconic Cultural Revolution sculptural tableau and fashion the clay sculptures on site during and after the exhibition’s opening, allowing for visitors’ interaction with them.


Social Projects
Cai Guo-Qiang is a peripatetic, transnational artist whose work explores and challenges the function and meaning of art within a wider social sphere. Central to his practice is the contraction of site-specificity with a conscious transcendence of cultural and temporal limitations. Responding to the conditions of each new location for a project, Cai approaches its place, patrimony, and indigenous practice with the sensibility of an archaeologist or historian. Cai commenced what may be termed as his Social Projects in the early 1990s, working with non-art sites and volunteers outside of the professional art world to create spaces for debate. These ongoing experiments and interventions carry out the artist’s utopian ideals of social engagement and mobilization, with a sustained belief in the transformational nature and the potential for dialogue within communities of people. Examples of Cai’s Everything is Museum series, wherein the artist assumes a curatorial role and appropriates non-art spaces for temporary exhibitions involving local communities, will be exhibited in the museum’s Sackler Center for Arts Education.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, featuring a preface by Thomas Krens, an introductory essay by Alexandra Munroe and critical essays by David Joselit, Chair, Department of Art History, Yale University; Miwon Kwon, Associate Professor of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Wang Hui, Professor of Tsinghua University and former chief editor of Dushu, China’s leading intellectual journal. The catalogue also features an Anthology of critical writings on Cai compiled by Beijing-based critic, Philip Tinari; a Chronology, Exhibition History and Bibliography. Featuring some 60 documented plate entries, the catalogue will serve as the defining scholarly publication on the artist and will contribute towards the establishment of Cai’s position within an international art-critical discourse and within China’s recent cultural history.

Public Programs
There will be a full roster of educational programs accompanying the exhibition including the U.S. premiere and Guggenheim site-specific adaptation of Wind Shadow, a multimedia dance performance by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, co-conceived by Artistic Director Lin-Hwai Min and Cai Guo-Qiang, with the participation of Works & Process at the Guggenheim.


September 6, 2007

Betsy Ennis, Director
Guggenheim Public Affairs
212 423 3840


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