Cai Guo-Qiang’s work spans decades of exploration: an artist’s dialogue with the universe, examining the unseen world. Fascinated with the mystical elements of our existence, Cai describes his practice as a means to “contemplate on the fate of humanity and social history” – an endeavour both mythological and anthropological. This summer, the Chinese artist revisits his creative trajectory with Ramble in the Cosmos – From Primeval Fireball Onward, an exhibition at the National Art Center in Tokyo co-organised by Saint Laurent. The project came about when the fashion house approached Cai to support a project of the artist’s choice; in turn, Cai suggested an exhibition and explosion event in Japan, a country whose culture has deeply influenced both himself and Saint Laurent.
The exhibition posits Cai’s 1991 Primeval Fireball exhibition as a starting point, tracing the evolution of the artist’s practice over the past 30 years. It premiered with an explosion event, When the Sky Blooms with Sakura: a half-hour spectacle of 40,000 fireworks shells launched between the sea and the sky. The piece – Japan’s first daytime fireworks show – was an homage to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that had taken place there in 2011. When the Sky Blooms with Sakura began with the ignition of 12 white chrysanthemums, each reaching a height of 50 meters, dedicated to the towns of Futaba, Okuma, Minamisoma, and Namie, which are still deeply affected by the pain of the great earthquake 12 years ago.
Commissioned by Saint Laurent’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello, the explosion event took place in the coastal city of Iwaki, along the same shoreline Cai realised an early work exactly 30 years ago: The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14. The piece was accomplished with the cooperation of some local Iwaki residents. “On the pitch-black ocean surface, we lit up a 5,000-metre-long line of gunpowder fuse, using the flash from the explosions to outline the contours of the earth,” Cai recalls today. “I am fascinated by the pure yet abstract nature of explosions as well as their unexpected and uncontrollable energy – a fascination with chaos.”
The multimedia artist is known for his use of gunpowder – an innovative medium that featured prominently at his seminal 1991 exhibition Primeval Fireball. Sprawling gunpowder-based illustrations were mounted on wooden folding screens, shining a spotlight on themes simultaneously earthly and ethereal (the same installation contained works with titles such as Bigfoot’s Footprints and Rebuilding the Berlin Wall, for instance). “During that time, I was passionately contemplating the social and environmental issues of the 20th century, such as materialism, and the future of our ecological environment and universe,” Cai says. “I pondered over these issues as if I were an extraterrestrial.” Primeval Fireball was, in the artist’s own words, a personal big bang that instigated his emergence into the art world.
Ramble in the Cosmos is in many ways a revisitation of the artist’s journey since. For the exhibition, the National Art Centre’s 2,000-square-metre gallery was transformed into an open space, much like a public square. One side features a re-enactment of Primeval Fireball, featuring the same works that were shown in the 1991 exhibition, along with three new paintings. Adjacent to it is a kinetic LED installation, Encounter with the Unknown. In total, Ramble in the Cosmos features over 50 works, as well as archival materials, documentary videos, and wall text written by the artist himself. Reflecting on what it’s been like to reflect on his artistic journey throughout the years through this exhibition, Cai says, “Revisiting the spirit of Primeval Fireball from 30 years ago is a reunion with my former self, and a return to the embrace of the universe – the eternal homeland of the young artist. Viewing earth’s civilisation with the eyes of the universe holds special significance in understanding the societal challenges we face today.”
That Ramble in the Cosmos takes place in Japan signifies a return to the artist’s roots. “As an artist, my first few years in Japan were both extraordinarily difficult and immensely rewarding,” he says. Revisiting a site of such great personal significance is something of a full-circle moment for Cai. “Countless persons and (opportunities), both known and unknown to me, nourished my young self from my hometown to Japan, from then to now. (Through) Ramble in the Cosmos exhibition at the NACT, I have reminisced on all the people who have given me strength along this journey.”
Cai’s works, grand and evocative, are an incredible reflection on the larger-scale relationship between Earth and the universe, as well as one’s connection to oneself. Ramble in the Cosmos is aptly mystical and subastral. There is a sense of ephemerality and mortality present in Cai’s work: whether it’s the firework art that lasts only for a few seconds, or the use of gunpowder, a lethal medium. “For me,” Cai reflects, “depicting the progress of human civilisation and my introspective Primeval Fireball era that explored the relationship between life and the universe, humans and nature, are not contradictory, nor are they bound to one another. Instead, they share a common principle of coexistence and a quest for the unseen world.”
Ramble in the Cosmos — From Primeval Fireball Onward by Cai Guo-Qiang is co-organised by Saint Laurent and is on show at the National Art Center in Tokyo until 21 August 2023.