Contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has made a long career of mining the collective cultural memory of the world—and the vast universe beyond—for subject matter that ultimately links otherwise discordant geographies, spaces and images together in his poetic and explosive works. Whether with gunpowder, clay, faux fur, excavated boats or shiny new cars, Cai weaves a deep philosophical narrative into the diverse materials he has selected to draw direct parallels between his native China and the world beyond. Many of the artist's most important works were included in a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2008 titled "I Want to Believe" that has travelled around the world, much like Cai Guo-Qiang's ever-extending aesthetic reach and vision.
Born in the town of Quanzhou in Fujian province, where fireworks were an inevitable component of major celebrations, and where the air often rang with the exchange of artillery fire and aerial bombardment over the strait between Taiwan and Fujian, Cai Guo-Qiang regularly witnessed both the positive and negative aspects of gunpowder. While acquiring an early nuanced appreciation of that material, he was also exposed as a child to art through his father, an amateur calligrapher and painter. His father's adherence to tradition spurred him contrarily to master oil painting, drawing, and watercolour painting, but he later came to appreciate his father's artistic steadfastness, which endured even through the anti-tradition era of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Further expanding the range of his interests, as a youth Cai Guo-Qiang acted in minor martial arts movies: his understanding of the movement of the body through space gained from the practice of martial arts has no doubt influenced his understanding of the body as an artistic tool, employed for example in the sometimes sweeping gestures of spreading gunpowder in preparation for his gunpowder drawings. The drama inherent in the major performances and explosive events of the artist's mature oeuvre relates to this as well as to his later study in Stage Design at the Shanghai Drama Institute (1981-1985).
In December 1986 Cai Guo-Qiang moved from his native China to Japan, where he remained for almost a decade. He emigrated to his present home, New York, in 1995. In Japan he found that artists had for decades been facing the dilemma of how to maintain their unique artistic point of view while responding effectively to the challenges of Western contemporary art. China artists were confronting the same situation, but had had a much shorter time to work through a solution, due to the cultural isolation they had experienced under leader Mao Zedong. Artists in neither China nor Japan had developed a wholly satisfactory response. Cai Guo-Qiang ostensibly skirted the dilemma by thinking on a much larger scale and directing his oeuvre towards an entirely fresh audience: extraterrestrials. The device of presenting his works of art to extraterrestrials acts as a foil, effectively bringing together all earthly residents: they, as opposed to extraterrestrials, possess a single origin and unified concerns, rendering issues of East and West trivial by comparison.
Indeed Cai's own early thinking was entirely concerned with the question of light. It was the sole issue that occupied his early meditations on the sort of artist he wished to become. Little surprise then, that he would eventually turn to a practice so integrally connected with fire and explosion—the fiercest and most fleeting form of light. Unsatisfied with the human scale of art and artistic ambition in a normal sense Cai resolved to create not "earth art" like that of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer to whom he is often compared, but "space art," to be viewed by aliens in distant galaxies. Cai's motive was however not simply this strange dictum to create something to entertain the creatures in space, but rather to "allow qi to circulate between the real and the virtual, like the breathing of the universe." The Project for Extraterrestrials was then conceived as an ingenious solution satisfying the spectrum of goals the artist has always hoped to achieve. Commenced in 1989 as a mere compendium of accordion sketchbooks, the project has expanded to become a robust series of thirty some elaborate proposals, all with the single hope of stringing together the celestial with the terrestrial and as a result, discover answers about our very own existence.
Project for Extraterrestrials No. 3-3: Meteorite Craters (Lot 845) alludes to the performance 45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 3 carried out on July 7, 1990. It was created for the exhibition "Chine Demain pour Hier," curated by Fei Dawei and held at Pourrieres, Aix-en-Provence in France, the very first show of avant-garde Chinese art in Europe. Continually for 30 days, three-second explosions were deployed to artificially form 45.5 "meteorite craters" on the surface of the earth. Short-lived detonations can effect such long-lasting destruction on the planet humans have patiently built and slowly cultivated for hundreds upon millions of years—Cai accentuates the fragility of our home and the vulnerability of our life. Project for Extraterrestrials No. 5-8: Fetus Movement (Lot 846) derives itself from Fetus Movement: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 5 which took place on November 3, 1990, in Ushimado of Okayama in Japan for "The 7th Japan Ushimado International Art Festival." A rectangular configuration of explosives was laid 10 cm beneath the earth's surface and each consecutively soars into the sky upon ignition. Executed to suggest the planet's fetus movement, the performance is measured by a seismometer so as to retain proof of the vibrating interaction between humans and their resident earth. Both documenting performances that were tangibly realized, the works mark the early stage of the artist's famed project.
Discussing the cosmology of Cai's art in a catalogue essay for his solo show at the Fondation Cartier in 2001, curator Fei Dawei offered a compelling summation of Cai's relationship to nature. In Cai's art, wrote Fei Dawei, "Nature is not an exterior that opposes human kind, but a process in which the human being participates. Nature, in its entirety does not vary quantitatively but it can spread through an unlimited number of forms. Artistic creation neither adds nor removes anything from nature. It simply puts peaceful eternity into question with the obvious disorder of the world of appearances."
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