There are many dreams that go unfulfilled, floating about like balloons waiting for someone to tie a string to them and take them home. For a young boy growing up in China’s Cultural Revolution, a dream of becoming an artist could have easily drifted away, but Cai Guo-Qiang has always allowed his ideas to exist on a grand scale. He eventually left China to pursue a career as an artist, and has since created a body of conceptual work characterised not only by its lavish proportions, but also deep philosophical ruminations. His first Australian solo exhibition at GOMA (until May 2014) is no exception, presenting large-scale installations that examine human nature.
Sneaking into clandestine temples before daybreak to worship Buddha is one of Cai Guo-Qiang’s most vivid childhood memories. Born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, in China in 1957, Cai was raised during a time when religion was banned, so he, his grandmother and mother would practise their faith under a cloak of darkness instead. Despite the cultural barrenness of China at the time, Cai was raised in an artistic family that resisted the oppressiveness of Mao Zedong’s regime, allowing him to explore his creativity from a young age. “I dabbled a bit in everything,” he recalls. “I tried to write poetry and my own novel, I played music, I learned martial arts, but it seemed that all of these hobbies and interests helped me become an artist.”
In order to avoid being sent to a forced-labour camp when he was on cusp of adulthood, Cai enrolled in a theatre troupe. There, he discovered that he was more interested in designing the backdrops of the sets, and took up the study of stage design instead. “After I was finished with stage design it somehow brought me back to art. And I haven’t stopped since,” Cai explains of his eventual transition.
Wherever Cai found himself in life, each road led him to the arts – even his fascination with space. For a brief period of time, he was mesmerised with the idea of becoming an astronaut, but admits that as a skinny young boy he didn’t think he would ever be strong and healthy enough to make it into outer space. For a long time he carried around this unfulfilled dream, but resolved the tension through art, which has provided him with another way to interact with the universe.
Many of his works, especially his large-scale explosives events in which he sends fiery sculptures and smoke signals into the sky, are designed to not only be visually striking, but also to open a dialogue with the universe. This interest in using explosives in art began while he was living in Japan from 1986–1995. Establishing himself as an artist while living in Japan, Cai began to experiment with gunpowder – using it explosively, but also as a medium to draw with. This theme has continued in his work, and his ability to conjure works of grand proportions and work with pyrotechnics and explosives saw him commissioned to oversee the fireworks for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Always open to change, Cai now calls New York City home, and his latest solo exhibition at GOMA, aptly titled Falling Back to Earth, is a shift of focus from the cosmos to matters of interest here on Earth. The exhibition explores the relationship between humanity and nature, which is most expressively evident in the installation Heritage. Commissioned for the exhibition, Heritage is an ambitious work that features 99 animals of all kinds, from kangaroos to lions, gathered around a waterhole. But despite this perfect vision of harmony, an unsettling feeling emanates from the scene. “There is a sense of melancholy about what has happened to our planet,” Cai explains of the work. “And because of conflicts between different people or different kinds of culture, it’s impossible to have such a harmonious scene.”
Despite spending his days meditating on such scenarios, Cai takes an optimistic view of his art, regarding it as a form of self-preservation as well as self-expression. “Art to me is like a time-space tunnel,” he explains. “In two weeks I’ll turn 56, but art still allows me to act like a teenager and sends me back to my youth.”
It’s this process that inspires Cai most, and his goal is to continue to enjoy making art. “I like making work and it makes me passionate about what I do,” he says excitedly. “All my assistants know that I like to do all kinds of work and I never stop – I like turning it into reality and being part of it. Sometimes museums end up acquiring my works, or I might be awarded for what I do, or my works might inspire people to think about social issues, but these are all outcomes that I didn’t quite anticipate and happen outside of my intention.”
His ability to hold on to his sense of childlike wonder through art radiates in his generous smile, and he admits that one of the things he cherishes most is that he still has the ability to play, and play well. “You should keep the eyes you had when you were young,” he beams. “You should never lose the inquisitiveness or the curiosity that you had from your youth.”