The Guggenheim Museum Presents Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want To Believe



Comprehensive Retrospective of the Chinese-Born Artist Surveys Early Works, Gunpowder Drawings, Explosion Events, Installations, and Social Projects

(NEW YORK, NY – February 21, 2008) – On view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from February 22 to May 28, 2008, Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe surveys the innovative body of work of Cai Guo-Qiang (surname pronounced tsai, given name pronounced gwo chang). The exhibition charts the artist’s creation of a distinctive visual and conceptual language across four mediums: gunpowder drawings; explosion events; installations; and social projects. With more than 80 works from the 1980s to the present—selected from major public and private collections in the U.S., Europe, and Asia— the exhibition examines Cai’s significant formal and conceptual contributions to contemporary international art and establishes his influence as a creator of socially-provocative projects for large audiences. Designed as a site-specific presentation within Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda building and also in galleries of the Annex, this comprehensive retrospective is the museum’s first solo show devoted to a Chinese-born artist. 

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

Media Partner Thirteen/WNET.

Cai Guo Qiang: I Want to Believe is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the generous support of additional individuals and foundations, including: The Blakemore Foundation, Grace S. Chang and Jennifer Chang Chernick, Celia and Silas Chou, Thomas Lee and Asia Art Center, Christophe Mao and Chambers Fine Art, Dina and David Reis, and Susy and Jack Wadsworth.

This exhibition is supported in part by the Guggenheim Museum 's Asian Art Advisory Board.

The Leadership Committee for Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe is gratefully acknowledged.

Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe was 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 Mónica Ramírez-Montagut and Sandhini Poddar have provided additional support. Following its New York opening, the exhibition is expected to travel to the National Art Museum of China in Beijing under the auspices of the Center for International Cultural Exchange, Ministry of Culture, P.R.C., as a part of the cultural Olympiad during the Olympic Games in August 2008. It will also be presented at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in spring 2009.

Cai Guo-Qiang was first exhibited by the Guggenheim in 1996, when he was selected as a finalist for the inaugural Hugo Boss Prize, which is administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and awarded to extraordinary creative figures in contemporary international art. His participation in the accompanying exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo was a catalyst for Cai’s international recognition, and the installation work he presented, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan (1996), currently installed on Annex Level 5 as part of the retrospective, is a highlight of the Guggenheim’s contemporary art collection.

“Cai Guo-Qiang has literally exploded the accepted parameters of art making in our time,” said Thomas Krens. “He draws freely from ancient mythology, military history, Taoist cosmology, Maoist revolutionary tactics, Buddhist philosophy, pyrotechnic technology, Chinese medicine, and methods of terrorist violence.” Mr. Krens continued, “His art is a form of social energy, constantly mutable, linking what he calls ‘the seen and unseen worlds.’ This retrospective presents the full spectrum of the artist’s protean, multimedia art in all its conceptual complexity.”

“The structure of Cai’s art forms is inherently unstable, dealing with ideas of transformation, expenditure of materials, and connectivity,” remarks co-curator Alexandra Munroe. “His social idealism characterizes all change, however violent, as carrying the seeds of positive creation.” Ms. Munroe continues, “His expanded notion of cultural experience subverts tropes like East versus West, traditional versus contemporary, center versus periphery, suggesting a new cultural paradigm for the art of a global age.”

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 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.”

Artist Background

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 what are called “gunpowder drawings” and “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 mediums relate his work to conceptual art, performance, and Land art but extend each of those practices toward a radically new matrix.


Cai’s is currently a core member of the creative team and Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games—ceremonies being designed as art spectacles of unprecedented mass outreach that will reach an estimated four billion television viewers.

The exhibition’s subtitle, I Want to Believe, suggests the ambiguities at the core of Cai’s wide-ranging artistic practice. It also expresses the artist’s curiosity with the universe and the spirit of questioning societal status quos. For Cai, art is the experience of believing in something that is unseen, or exists beyond belief, and the titles of his early works often allude to extraterrestrials as a metaphor for gaining a radically different perspective. Cai’s work freely cites historic tales, folk myths, nuclear apocalypse, medicinal powers, the big bang, and other topics, all of which serve in different ways to create structures of nonlinear time and decentered space. The object of Cai’s explosions is ultimately the known world.

Exhibition Layout

The structure of the retrospective is designed as a site-specific presentation, whose progression of works and compressed aspect will, in Cai Guo-Qiang’s words, “fill the museum with the energy of an explosion.” The exhibition focuses on the development and expression of Cai’s signature innovation—the harnessing of gunpowder to create powerful explosions, both as gunpowder drawings on canvas or paper and as ephemeral explosion events.

The exhibition will be punctuated by eight of Cai’s most important installations created since the early 1990s, which will occupy the first three levels of the rotunda’s ramp and three galleries of the Annex. Included among them is an exhibition copy of Inopportune: Stage One (2004), comprised of nine real cars pierced with blinking light tubes that simulate the trajectory of a car-bomb explosion tumbling upwards through the atrium’s void; and An Arbitrary History: River (2001), an installation on Annex Level 2 in which visitors are invited to board a yak-skin boat and float along a serpentine riverbed (constructed of fiberglass and bamboo) beneath an assortment of Cai’s past works that are suspended from the ceiling. On Rotunda Level 3 will be New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard (2008)—a new version of Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard (1999), the installation for which the artist was awarded the Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Biennale and which itself was an appropriation of an iconic socialist-realist sculptural installation. The piece features approximately seventy-five clay sculptures that will be created on site during and after the exhibition’s opening by artisans invited from to New York . For Reflection—A Gift from Iwaki (2004), local residents of Iwaki, a seaport in northeastern , who originally excavated the sunken ship, have traveled to New York to install it at the Guggenheim. 

Three levels of the Guggenheim’s famous spiraling ramp will be dedicated to illustrating how the gunpowder drawings cohere with the many explosion events that Cai has produced in over twenty cities around the world—challenging and expanding the possibilities for ephemeral, site-specific art.

Early Works: 1985–88

Cai Guo-Qiang’s early works in the exhibition 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 reveals Cai’s progressive search for a practice of art making that directly harnesses the spontaneity of natural forces. Ultimately, he arrived at a process that allowed him to channel these volatile forces to create unpredictable compositions through explosion, fire, and smoke.


Cai’s early two-dimensional works on canvas and paper display key themes that would later come to define his conceptual concerns. Among these is his mining of Chinese folklore and mythology, wherein he appropriated popular images, traditional materials, and allegorical stories to specify the meaning of his work.

From the start, Cai sought to connect what he called the “unseen world” to his art, linking it to a metaphysical study of cosmic meridians of energy currents, primordial states of chaos, and the nature of formless matter. Initially, Cai experimented with a wide variety of materials and techniques such as laying oil paint on the canvas and blasting it with air blown from an electric fan that he held over the surface, shaping the movement of paint with the force of wind, as in Typhoon (1985). This exploration would lead to Cai’s eventual adaptation of gunpowder as a primary material. Gunpowder, a component in firecrackers commonly used for social events in Quanzhou among other places, was also a palpable presence in the artist’s childhood through the constant bombardments between the city and . This exposure contributed to Cai’s eventual fascination with the material and the direct application of gunpowder on his oil canvases. 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, as in Gunpowder Painting No. 8-10 (1988).  After he moved to in 1986, Cai began igniting gunpowder 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.

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; the fibrous structure withstands and absorbs the impact of the explosion and the charring of the paper. Often 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 might lay wooden boards or sheets of glassine to effectively disperse the patterns resulting from smoke and the impact of the explosion. Cai then sometimes weights 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 substantial power of explosive destruction. A second or two later, the paper lies 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, while living in ; and from 1996 through the present, while living in New York . During the 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. The top three levels of the museum’s rotunda display a chronological selection of Cai’s gunpowder drawings as well as video documentation of related explosion events. The seven gunpowder drawings that Cai Guo-Qiang presented as an installation in his solo exhibition “Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects” at the alternative art space P3 art and environment, 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. Projects for Humankind Tokyo , in 1991 are reunited on Rotunda Level 5. Many of the earlier gunpowder drawings—whether a multipanel folding-screen or a single sheet of paper—diagram Cai’s conceptual ideas and proposed visual designs for specific explosion events, 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.

Explosion Events

One of ’s most famous inventions is gunpowder—literally meaning “fire medicine” in Chinese—which is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur; it was originally discovered by Taoist alchemists in search of an imperial “elixir of immortality.” Cai began using gunpowder and fuse lines to create explosion events for public audiences. He used the ground of a site and existing structures as a physical framework. The early events lasted between one and fifteen seconds. Since then Cai’s practice has evolved dramatically. He now produces aerial explosion events by harnessing computerized technology developed alongside professional pyrotechnicians to create more elaborate explosion imagery, whose effects last as long as twenty minutes. Cai’s explosion events are often realized through commissions by museums, art biennials, or national and international agencies.

Cai’s explosion events are related in sheer scale to site-specific Land art projects, where art disrupts the environment by employing it to radical aesthetic use. Unlike most Land art, Cai’s events are intentionally transient. As time-based works created for live public audiences, the 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. The Guggenheim retrospective features documentary videos surveying Cai’s explosion events from 1989 to 2005.


Cai Guo-Qiang’s multifaceted 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. Polemical approaches and politically charged issues—for example, by conjuring the now-destroyed Berlin Wall in Head On (2006), presenting the horrific explosion of a car bomb through an exuberant play of light and color in Inopportune: Stage One (2004), or embellishing the killing of tigers in Inopportune: Stage Two (2004)—are restaged so that their contradictions are made evident and open for public discussion and reflection.


To produce and implement his works, Cai often collaborates with volunteers from outside the contemporary art world, thus bringing a dimension of social context into the realm of international art making. For Reflection—A Gift from Iwaki (2004), local residents of Iwaki, a seaport in northeastern , who originally excavated the sunken ship, have been invited to New York to install it at the Guggenheim. In New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard (2008), Chinese artisans trained in figurative sculpture have traveled to New York and work on site before and after the exhibition’s opening to create approximately seventy-five clay figures which will be allowed to disintegrate during the run of the show.


Cai’s use of live animals, such as snakes, crabs, and fish, along with life-size replicas of tigers and wolves, sunken boats, paper lanterns, and sheepskin floats all have traditional associations in Chinese society, but in a contemporary art context they open up to Western interpretations.

Temporally, while the visitor navigates an installation’s apparent linear flow, elements of the journey trigger the intrusion of different times and memories of past experiences. For Cai, this experience of the coexistence of present and past replicates a comprehensive life experience. For example, with An Arbitrary History: River (2001), a visitor can board a boat and float down a serpentine riverbed while observing the artist’s own miniretrospective freely suspended overhead.

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 have been termed “social projects” in the early 1990s, working with nonart 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. Among these is Cai’s Everything Is Museum series, wherein the artist assumes a curatorial role and appropriates nonart spaces for temporary exhibitions involving local communities, documentation of the series and new works created by guest artists will be exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum ’s Sackler Center for Arts Education.


Exhibition Catalogue

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; and Wang Hui, Professor of Tsinghua University and former chief editor of Dushu, China’s leading intellectual journal. The catalogue also features an Anthology, compiling excerpts of critical writings on and by Cai Guo-Qiang; a Chronology; a Selected Exhibition History; and a Selected Bibliography. Also featuring 54 annotated and illustrated catalogue entries, this publication will serve as the defining scholarly publication on the artist and contribute toward the establishment of Cai’s position within an international art-critical discourse and within China’s recent cultural history (soft cover $45 hardcover $75).'



On Thursday, April 3, at 2 PM and 8 PM, the U.S. premiere and Guggenheim site-specific adaptation of Images from Wind Shadow, a multimedia dance performance conceived as “moving installation art” by Cai Guo-Qiang and Lin Hwai-min, Artistic Director and Founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, will be presented in the Peter B. Lewis Theater. Produced by Works & Process and the Guggenheim Museum , the program is accompanied by a discussion among the artistic collaborators. This program is made possible by Thomas Lee and Asia Art Center , Eslite Gallery, and Council for Cultural Affairs, . Additional support is provided by Shiseido and many generous individual donors.


Education Programs

A full roster of educational programs will be presented under the auspices of the Sackler Center for Arts Education during the run of the exhibition. The following programs are held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum . For updated information regarding ticketed programs, contact the Box Office at 212 423 3587 or visit .

On View in the Sackler Center

Everything Is Museum

February 22–May 28

As an integral extension of the exhibition and curated by Cai Guo-Qiang, Everything Is Museum documents the artist’s ongoing social project series of the same name which he began in 2000. Everything Is Museum includes interventions into unusual, nonart sites such as abandoned pottery kilns, old bridges, and military bunkers, with collaborations by local administrators, artisans, volunteers, and contemporary artists to realize these complex large-scale projects. The presentation includes photographs, drawings, documentation, and new works by selected artists who have participated in the Everything Is Museum series, including Norman Foster, Thomas Krens, Jennifer Wen Ma and Kiki Smith and Tan Dun as well as art by families and children.

Lectures and Panels


February 22, 7 PM

This special conversation between co-curators Thomas Krens and Alexandra Munroe and artist Cai Guo-Qiang presents the creative forces behind the organization of the exhibition. The event is followed by a book signing by the artist.

Reimagining the Cultural Revolution
March 19, 6:30 PM
Cai Guo-Qiang’s recuperation and interrogation of Maoist revolutionary tactic as acts of a socialist utopianism are keys to the context of his work. The panel, featuring major figures in Chinese contemporary art, scholarship, and the avant-garde, will examine the history of these subjects as well as communication approaches to art making, a reliance on agitprop, and spectacle. Moderator: Carma Hinton, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies, George Mason University . Participants: Li Xianting, independent curator/critic, Beijing; Wang Mingxian, independent scholar/curator, Beijing

Food, Sex, and Art
April 4, 6:30 PM
For Cai Guo-Qiang, an exhibition is far more than a fixed assembly of objects; it is a live event that exists as a constantly evolving process in time and space. Objects activate social interactions and propel astonishing flashes of insight. Every aspect of the Guggenheim show’s preparation, installation, catalogue, and public programs thus reveal themselves as one piece of his larger ecosystem. This approach has inspired Cai to host this discussion about food, sex, and art. With David Bouley, restauranteur; Cai Guo-Qiang, artist; Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Hans Belting: Global Art and the Museum (GAM)
April 15, 6:30 PM
Against the backdrop of Cai Guo-Qiang as a global artist, Hans Belting will present GAM, the first initiative to document a new museum geography mirroring the globalization of the visual arts.

Exploding Chinese Art: The Economy of Art/Art of the Economy

May 14, 6:30 PM at the Asia Society

In a lively conversation at the Asia Society, scholars, artists, and dealers explore the “economic explosion” reflected in the contemporary Chinese art market and the Chinese economy more broadly. Box Office 212 517-ASIA or https:/

Adult Education

Asia Currents

5 Wednesdays, February 27, March 12, April 2, April 16, and April 30, 6-7:30PM

A special five-session immersion into contemporary art from China, Japan, and India featuring conversations with curators and critics, a gallery tour, and private collection and museum visits. Host: Craig Houser. Special guests: Sandhini Poddar, Eric Shiner, Phillip Tinari. Free to Patron’s Circle members. For information call 212 360 4241.


About the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Founded in 1937, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to the collection, conservation, and study of the art of our time. The Foundation realizes this mission through exceptional exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications, and strives to engage and educate an increasingly diverse international audience through its unique network of museums and cultural partnerships. Currently the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation owns and operates three museums: the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal in Venice, and the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas . The Foundation also provides programming and management for two other museums in Europe that bear its name: the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.

The Guggenheim has extended its reach not only through its network of international locations and alliances, including with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but also through its expanding permanent collection and increasingly diverse schedule of special exhibitions and programs. This 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 Abramoviæ, Matthew Barney, Daniel Buren, 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.

Since 1992, the Guggenheim has produced more than 250 major exhibitions. These projects have encompassed definitive retrospectives of major American and international artists; historical surveys of 20th-century art such as The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932 (1992), Picasso and the Age of Iron (1993), The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968 (1994), Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline (1996), and Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism (2003); and exhibitions that have presented the artistic heritage of many countries and regions: Africa: The Art of a Continent (1996), China: 5,000 Years (1998), Brazil: Body & Soul (2001), The Aztec Empire (2004), RUSSIA! (2005), and Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History (2006). During the past five years, Guggenheim-organized exhibitions have been presented in more than eighty museums around the world. As a result of these expanded sites and programs, the Guggenheim has more than tripled its attendance worldwide. With nearly three million annual visitors worldwide, the Guggenheim and its network of museums is one of the most visited cultural institutions in the world.


Admission and Museum Hours

Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors (65+). Children under 12 are free. An audio guide is available in English and Chinese and is included with admission. The museum is open Saturday to Wednesday, 10 AM to 5:45 PM; Friday, 10 AM to 7:45 PM. The museum is closed on Thursday. On Friday evenings beginning at 5:45 PM, the museums hosts Pay What You Wish; these tickets cannot be purchased in advance. For general information, please call 212 423 3500 or visit


February 21, 2008


Betsy Ennis, Director, Media and Public Relations

Claire Laporte, Associate, Media Relations

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

212 423 3840


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