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>> Talk: Cai Guo-Qiang
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Production images of wolfes, components of the exhibition "Cai Guo-Qiang -Deutsche Bank Collection "
at the Deutsche Guggenheim, 2006
©Courtesy Cai Studio

At the same time, there are many associations that arise in connection to the German past, particularly in the capital of Berlin – images from the Second World War, for instance. In your installation Head On, a pack of wolves is attacking the wall like in a trench war. At the same time, in fairy tales and fables, the wolf is a dangerous liar, trickster, and seducer that devours its victims.

The whole thing isn’t as well planned and as concise as you might imagine. Each new work is for me an opportunity to reflect upon human history, the conditions of contemporary society and the conditions that helped shape it. But just as I try to find something out about the specific properties of a city, I’m also concerned with things that affect human existence in a general way. It’s entirely possible that the references you mention to the wolves or the burning house apply. But the work is based on completely different considerations.

Why did you choose the wolf as the motif for your exhibition?

I tried to find an animal that represents a collective heroism, an animal that likes company, that lives in a pack. I wanted to portray the universal human tragedy resulting from this blind urge to press forward, the way we try to attain our goals without compromise. This is something that keeps repeating itself all throughout human history. In Zen philosophy, there is this idea of tragic beauty based on the notion that most of what happens has no meaning whatsoever.

If these aspects of your work are of such a universal nature, and if the walls exist in our heads, so to speak, they why, in of all places the Deutsche Guggenheim, are the wolves attacking a replica of the Berlin Wall?

Because I wanted to enter into a general dialogue with local Berlin residents. For my current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I installed a big sheet of glass in the museum’s roof garden. There was a dialogue with the city’s skyscrapers, which you can see as though through a huge window, like a transparent wall. There are all different kinds of walls. If I’d made a replica of the Great Wall of China in the Deutsche Guggenheim, it wouldn’t have held as much meaning for the local people visiting the show. I was interested in removing something from the urban context, something that people can directly relate to. That’s why my works for New York, Berlin, and China are all so different.

Production images of wolfes, components of the exhibition "Cai Guo-Qiang - Deutsche Bank Collection"
at the Deutsche Guggenheim, 2006
©Courtesy Cai Studio

But isn’t that a little corrupt, to react in this way to local sensibilities? The Berlin Wall is extremely loaded with symbolism as well as with personal and collective memory. It represents the separation between political systems, between the East and the West. So you can be sure to grab people’s attention immediately. But perhaps you need to hear this – that you’re simplifying the complexity of German history into one simple metaphor just to get people’s attention.

I debated for a long time whether I should use the Wall or not. Of course I could have used the bare wall of the exhibition space for the installation. But I wanted to use something to accelerate the force of the forward-pressing pack. This energy increases when you install an additional wall in front of the real wall of the building. Yesterday, while I was visiting the museum, we even decided to tilt the wall a little to further intensify the power of the crash. It’s about aesthetic and physical decisions here. I want the installation to be charged. I want the public to really concentrate on this wall. The fact that the symbolism of the Wall might deflect attention from the movement of the pack, the energy and beauty of the wolves, is also a danger, of course.

Tornado, Festival of China,
Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, 2005
photo by Hiro Ihara, all rights reserved
©Deutsche Guggenheim, © Cai Guo-Qiang

Why do your actions so often take place at monuments like the Great Wall of China or in places that are historically loaded? How do you choose these locations?

As a Chinese, you always have a lot to do with history – it’s a duty that I have from my father, who is an art historian. To that extent, I can’t get around history being a part of my work. But it’s about a light, playful, and humorous way of addressing history – and not an academic, pedagogical version. I’m not interested in giving lessons. A part of my art is that despite its forward movement, it can also retreat. For instance the piece Venice's Rent Collection Courtyard that was on show at the Venice Biennale in 1999: the installation represented a group of propaganda figures from the Mao era in an examination of nineteen-sixties China – formulated at the dawn of the new millennium.

Communism was never supposed to be based on the past, but always on the future. In your work, art seems to pull the past out of the darkness for one brief moment, like in a flash, only to let it slip back into obscurity again.

The explosion of the gunpowder is actually the moment where art connects the history of the location to the viewer’s presence. At the same time, the moment becomes visually frozen, and time disappears in the occurrence, becomes eliminated.

Illusion II: Explosion Project, 9:30pm, July 11, 2006
Stresemannstrasse/ Möckernstrasse, Berlin, Germany
Foto: Hiro Ihara, © Courtesy of Cai Studio

While in most cultures fireworks take place at celebrations, you use them in effect to celebrate the work of art itself.

Fire is something holy; it’s an element that people have learned to control. In traditional Chinese medicine, gunpowder was a remedy, something alchemistic that was invented in the search for immortality. There’s a dialogue with the element of fire, and thus with fire’s hidden power. This connection fascinated me. It’s a work of art, but the exhibition brings a large number of people together that take part in my work – from the museum director to the staff, the public, etc. To that extent, the fireworks are also a celebration for the people involved.

Illusion II: Explosion Project, 9:30pm, July 11, 2006
Stresemannstrasse/ Möckernstrasse, Berlin, Germany
Foto: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy of Cai Studio

Your work often oscillates between ceremony, spectacle, and art.

It’s precisely this grey zone that interests me, these very subtle borders that are respected or transgressed. The potential danger of explosive materials requires a high degree of security, which produces another kind of danger: that the work becomes too spectacular, too slick and satisfying for the viewer – that it’s no longer art. If you work in this event area, you’re moving in a dangerous zone. But I love danger and difficulty. That’s why I don’t make my things as "big" as possible, and I don’t try to produce something akin to catharsis. I make it a little "smaller." I accept that people are perhaps a little perplexed when they don’t see the Fourth of July fireworks they’re expecting. Yet I couldn’t make a pure museum installation. Hence, my work is situated somewhere between all these different areas.

As a strategist, you have to constantly fight for permission – for the fireworks, for permission to film and so on. Are you an organizational talent like Jeanne-Claude and Christo?

With Jeanne-Claude and Christo, it’s about them owning the work of art completely, that they finance it entirely through the sales of smaller works and for this reason retain the right to ownership. For me, the notion of ownership is not as important. The large scale of my work is always indebted to the many people who might ultimately see the work.

Illusion II: Explosion Project, 9:30pm, July 11, 2006
Stresemannstrasse/ Möckernstrasse, Berlin, Germany
Foto: Hiro Ihara, Courtesy of Cai Studio

Your art is often a mixture of past cultures and includes references to archaic motifs. Is the emphasis on such traditions a reaction to the short life span of artistic trends?

One feature of the contemporary art concept is that every feeling and every idea can become art. In this sense, there are an infinite number of possibilities. For this reason, as an artist I can constantly think about the locations and my relationship to them. In China, this freedom rapidly gives rise to the idea that it doesn’t matter what you do, that you can call everything art. This also has a quality of "messing up," and I like this image for my activities – I like to provoke a little. Things don’t always have to be analyzed in depth.

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