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Tragic Beauty
A Conversation with Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang already made a big bang prior to his exhibition Head On when he blew up an entire house in front of hundreds of onlookers. Harald Fricke and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf spoke with the Chinese artist about his relationship to German history, tragic beauty, and the dangers of a global event culture.

Cai Guo-Qiang, 2006

Workers erected the small house a few days ago – a bit of prefab, a bit of shrubbery, white with a gable roof on top – typically German, that is. Nothing special, actually, except that this house is situated in the middle of Berlin on an unused lot close to the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof. But no one will be moving in here.

When the new construction blows up in a deafening explosion on the evening of July 11, one thinks for a moment of a gas explosion or a bomb. But then there are these bright, colorful fireworks rising up into the evening sky kindled by a reddish glow, up from the burning house and accompanied by a fine ash rain. Illusion II is the title of the explosive performance by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, which will be on show in the form of a video at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin starting on August 26.

Illusion II: Explosion Project, July 11, 2006
Stresemannstrasse/ Möckernstrasse, Berlin, Germany
Foto: Maria Morais

Cai’s first one-person museum exhibition in Germany is explosive in many respects; he "paints" with gunpowder, using traces from glowing embers and soot to form wolf and lion shapes in his poetic pictures. And then there’s the realistic pack of wolves that keeps the Deutsche Guggenheim in check: 99 wolves charge into the exhibition hall, running, loping, and finally leaping straight at the wall at the head of the room.

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

The artist, born 1957 in Quanzhou City, Province Fujian, loves danger and challenge: as a young man, he worked as an actor in Chinese martial arts films. Since that time, however, Cai can look back over an impressive career. He left his native country in 1986 to work first in Japan and then in New York. Since the early nineties, he has realized a large number of projects all around the globe, combining traditional Chinese art and culture with post-conceptual thought. Whether he paints on walls, paper, or in the sky with his explosive art, whether he creates bridges, dragons, or black holes from light and color – he always undermines predetermined perceptions and confronts the viewer with the paradoxes inhabiting an increasingly globalized world.

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

Some of Cai’s spectacular projects have been: Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, Jiayuguan City, 1993; Transient Rainbow, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002; Ye Gong Hao Long: Explosion Project for Tate Modern, Tate Modern, London, 2003; Light Cycle: Explosion Project for Central Park, Creative Time, New York, 2003. In 2005, Cai Guo-Qiang curated the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. A large retrospective of the artist’s work is scheduled for 2008 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and will be supported by Deutsche Bank.

Exploding House: Project for Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin,
Gunpowder on paper, 2006, Collection of the artist
©Cai Guo-Qiang

Harald Fricke and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Why are your works so often about extraterrestrials, spirits, and fairy tale creatures?

Cai Guo-Qiang: Making the invisible visible, whether in the form of a dragon or a tiger, lends thought a physical presence. But seriously, it’s about animals and spirits that represent the human world, without attaining to a concrete human form. My grandmother and my mother both observed the traditions of their ancestors. They believed in the power of invisible things – this was a part of everyday life, and now it comes to expression in my art.

Transient Rainbow, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, 2002
©Cai Guo-Qiang

Your works for Head On combine this tradition with various different motifs that arose during your investigation of Berlin: a typical little German house that bursts into flames after an apparent bombing in Illusion II, or the 99 wolves that collectively jump against a wall in the exhibition hall. How did these images arise?

That’s just a coincidence. It was a fantasy of mine that I had while I was traveling around here in Germany. While I was building the house for Illusion II, for instance, which exploded using fireworks, a townhouse burnt and collapsed in New York at the same time. Of course the works have something to do with Berlin, too, but not in a specific sense, because it’s about things that apply to the entire human race: the beauty of destruction, heroism, human blindness. All these different elements occur on a smaller scale, but they are universal nonetheless.

Proposal drawing for Vortex, 2005
©Cai Guo-Qiang

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