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China-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang is known for his dynamic installations with fireworks. Now, based in New York, he works worldwide as one of the top Asian artists. COOL asks him what he thinks about the art scenes of New York and Asia from the artist’s perspective. Also, we will show you his latest installation and its press preview exhibited now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

----- About his production in New York

COOL: What made you move to New York?

Cai Guo-Qiang: I first move to Japan from China in 1986 and lived there for 8 years and a half. I had mostly been in Asia since I was born in China and worked in Japan. Even when I started to work in Europe in the early 90's, I was there just to attend the exhibitions most of the time and didn't have chances to get to know European people there. In America, there weren't that many opportunities for me either. But, as a contemporary artist, I always wanted to live and work in America or Europe so that I could expand my career. At that time, it had been said that the 20th century was about American justice, so I wanted to actually live and work in the country like that and obtain some thoughts. In 1991, I was requested to join ACC (*US-Japan Creative Arts Fellowship; one of Japan's international exchange funds) by America, but I was turned down because I wasn't Japanese.

Later, from around 1994, I began showing my installations at various international exhibitions as a Japanese contemporary artist and being invited to international exhibitions overseas by foreign ministries and embassies. Then, I started to be recognized as one of the Japanese artists. In 1995, America again requested me to join ACC and I was accepted this time, and I could finally come to America

C: What does New York mean to you?

Cai Guo-Qiang: Living in New York is like being in the large park of the world. Like, people all over the world gather at the park called New York and communicate each other. You don't have to go out to meet people because people get together naturally. So, now it is much more convenient when it comes to work.

C: How do you think Asian arts are recognized in America?

Cai Guo-Qiang: I don't think American people see Asian arts as exotic, which Europeans do. America is a multi-cultural country, so people get interested in Asian arts not because it is a foreign culture. Here we have various cultures like Asian, Latin, and African. For example, if an Asian-themed exhibition is held in America, it won't be reviewed or recognized in terms of its Asian ethnicity. Rather, being recognized and successful in America means that the works and productions of the artists themselves are recognized (regardless of its ethnicity). When I look at Asian artists in Berlin or Paris, I sometimes wonder if, even though they are loved by people there, they and their works are recognized in the right way. In that respect, I appreciate that Americans review the works honestly in a non-biased way. Recently, Mr. Murakami* (Japanese Artist Takashi Murakami) received recognitions from American people. That’s not because they like Japan, but because what he does and his pieces are fun and interesting to them.

C: What are the differences between America and Japan regarding your production?

Cai Guo-Qiang: Firstly, I thought Japan was great because it was a modernized and democratized country. In addition, people were very kind. Japan was a great country for an amateur and young artist like me. One of the reasons is that galleries in Japan generally have a vanity gallery system, which offers places where young artists can show their works. When I went to Iwaki city in Fukushima, I collaborated with the locals and made the installation called "Horizon― Pacific-Rim." I felt that the piece was loved by people in Iwaki and that the town united as one. Back in those days, the Japanese art world was accredited for its modernization and globalization, but also criticized because it looked westernized. I was in Japan at that time, so I could learn a lot from the trend of the Japanese art world, the atmosphere of the society, and being surrounded by many of those criticisms and views. Japan is an easy place to collaborate with local people. I often tell young people (in Japan) that it is hard to struggle in New York at a young age. So I rather recommend that they come to America after finding their own styles or what they really want to do by trying anything that they want to try while in Japan. As America has well-developed systems of the arts (museums, galleries, collectors, auction houses, and media), I think it is easier to start careers in America after gaining certain skills.

C: What are you feeling after you actually started working in America?

Cai Guo-Qiang: America is rough and tough. But that's also a good thing. For example, when I was working in Japan, the reviews about my works were mostly good ones. In America, I get both good reviews and harsh criticisms.

C: Have you found anything awkward?

Cai Guo-Qiang: Yes, a lot. In Japan, I could collaborate with locals and make pieces together. Since I speak Japanese, I could explain the concepts of my works in my own words. Also, because Asian philosophy was born in China, it was easy for me, from the same "Asian" ethnic group, to get my intensions across. In America, it is hard for me to explain the concepts and philosophies in English. Besides, since everything is about business here, collaborating with locals encompasses many problems. For instance, even when you hire volunteers, you have to make contracts to make it clear that who is responsible in case something happens. Collaborations with locals in America are harder to realize.

----- About his installations

C: Tell us about your recent works.

Cai Guo-Qiang: At the beginning of this year, I had my exhibition "INOPPORTUNE" in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I also had "Official Ceremony for The Permanent Installation of UMoCA" exhibition this March, in Tuscany, Italy. In May, another exhibition of mine called "Long March: Chinese Contemporary Art Education Panel" will be held in China. From April 25 to October 29, my installation “Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument” will be held at the metropolitan Museum in New York. In June, the largest one-man exhibition of my own will be held at the National Gallery in Canada.

C: Sounds you are very busy!

Cai Guo-Qiang: It was hard because I needed to create new pieces for each shows. I draw my drawings at the firework factory in Long Island and gunpowder gets blended at another factory in China. They send it to America.

C: Where do you find themes for your works?

Cai Guo-Qiang: After the 9/11 attack in New York, my themes and works has been quite diverse. For example, I made the rainbow of fireworks above the East River and expressed the colorfulness of the city. I also made the black rainbow under the daylight, whose theme was to express the dismay of the modern society. The pieces with cars inspired me to produce pieces about terrorist attacks.

C: You have works which have concepts of Feng Shui. Do you arrange your studio according to Feng Shui?

Cai Guo-Qiang: Absolutely. Feng Shui is the first priotiry when choosing studios. Even after choosing the studio, I rely on Feng Shui where to place Buddha and other stuff. I placed the Lion Rock between doors. I have many female staffs, and when they complained that they were too busy with work to date, I placed some stuff that would bring opportunities to meet great matches. I also made a Japanese-style garden in the studio. At exhibitions at local towns, Feng Shui represents the energies of the culture, people's history, and space of the town. The life energy "Qi" is an invisible energy. I develop ideas and work on my pieces, taking that energy highly into consideration. I don’t always express like “This is Feng Shui” in my works directly, but when I am working, I am conscious of Feng Shui in an invisible way, like aesthetically.

C: Upon the production of your works in which you use gunpowder, you invented the technique to control the altitude of explosions of fireworks by putting microchips into firework balls. How did the invention affect your work after adopting microchips?

Cai Guo-Qiang: First, it had been said that using gunpowder was dangerous.
Until I started developing the technique of built-in microchips around 2001, all the fireworks were exploded by fuse and the timing of explosions were calculated by the length of fuse. Since fuse was made by hand, it was very difficult to fix the shape and order of explosions of fireworks. But if you use fireworks with built-in microchips, the altitudes and timing of explosions are already calculated.For instance, it is like 2000 people who have tickets get seated exactly in their right seats. I can control the altitude and timing of the explosions of 2000 fireworks. However, there are a good thing and a bad thing about introducing microchips. The good thing is that now I can use the sky as canvas. The bad thing is that they are expensive. I feel pressured in many aspects because huge amount of money is spent on few dozens of seconds of art. That is, promoters try to gather many people to see that expensive piece of art by using the media. The pressure gets even more intense when thousands of people come to see the few dozen seconds of art. That kind of pressure is basically nothing to do with arts, though. Now that I can collect funds and attract people for my work, but I still feel apprehensive if that something in the sky was an art and that the piece was really an artistic piece.

C: When do you feel the excitement while working?

Cai Guo-Qiang: All the time. I always joke that making pieces is the same thing as having sex (laughs). Even when you fail, you can't start over again. Each time is the last time, and you never know if it will end up good or bad if you don't try. But when I finish working, all I feel is a joy. No matter good or bad. I always feel delighted and happy after completing my works.

C: What is an art for you ?

Cai Guo-Qiang: An art is what I do. Through the artistic eyes, everything in the world, from election campaigns of politicians or constructions on the streets, can look as arts.

C: If you were not an artist, what do you think you would be doing?

Cai Guo-Qiang: I can't imagine. I can't see myself being anything but an artist. Sometimes I myself think that I am good at making artistic pieces, but I am not that good at anything else (laugh).

On April 24, the press preview of Cai Guo Qiang’s latest installation was held at the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum. It had been raining for two days and didn’t seem to stop even an hour before the opening. However, as the time got closer to the opening, the rain magically stopped as if the heaven above was also expecting for his new work. Cai Guo Qiang captivated the attendees with his greater-than-expected piece and live installation. He looked very proud of them.

Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang was born in Quanzhou-city, Fujian, China in 1957. He worked in Japan from 1986 to 1995 and currently lives in New York. He is known for his original philosophy backed up by Oriental ideals like Feng Shui and for dynamic projects and installations with fireworks. He has received many international awards including "International Venice Biennale award." He has held both solo exhibitions and group exhibitions many times globally and is highly renowned internationally.

text by Nobuko MARUTA
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