While he was installing his current retrospective I Want To Believe at the Guggenheim Museum (on view Feb. 22nd until May 28th, then traveling to the National Museum of Art in Beijing in time for the Summer Olympics), Cai Guo-Qiang took time out from his busy schedule to sit down and talk with Rail Editor-at-Large Ellen Pearlman about his work.
Ellen Pearlman (Rail): How did this show come to be at the Guggenheim?
Cai Guo-Qiang: This show came about when I had my exhibition at Mass MOCA. Director Thomas Krens came to see the exhibition and the moment that he saw it, he looked at me and said, “It’s time for your retrospective.” That was in December 2004 and we have been working on this exhibition since.
Rail: Gao Minglu, the great Harvard educated Chinese art critic, said that Chinese artists must look at Chinese traditional philosophical concepts, aesthetic values and techniques while developing experimental approaches to making art. Can you talk about his statement in relation to your own art practices?
Guo-Qiang: This is Gao Minglu’s point of view. As my art practices have evolved they have taken their own approaches and different paths to making art. I learned a lot from my upbringing in the Chinese context. Of course the traditional philosophical concepts had been imbedded in me growing up. Those things are the incubating factors, but they are not the goal of my art, so where it started and where it is going may not be the same direction.
Rail: Mao Tse Tung said “no construction no destruction.” How does this fit into your work and at what point did it enter your process?
Guo-Qiang: When I was little I participated in these street activities including collecting all types of different hand distributed flyers from people who had different points of view. I collected the fliers and then distributed them again. I felt like it was a kind of game. Other activities included demolishing classrooms and being rebellious to the teachers. When I was little these political events seemed like games. I didn’t understand them as some kind of political movement. That is what Mao labeled “no construction, no destruction.” After I grew up I learned about the huge impact the Cultural Revolution had. But I participated in these kinds of activities as games, and as I grew up I assimilated this methodology. I wasn’t for or against the Cultural Revolution. It is a different way of conceiving these events.
Rail: Could you discuss the 2006 Long March Gallery project “Yan’an Forum on Arts and Literature,” which you participated in on the 64th anniversary for Mao Tse Tung’s 1943 Yan’an speech on art held at the site of the Yan’an Anti-Japanese Resistance University?
Guo-Qiang: I had never contributed to the arts education in China, so when the Long March Project approached me to pick a location along the Long March route to do something with their project, I thought about Mao’s 1943 speech in which he explains how art is in service of the people. In the end art was in service of politics. But, using that form of art in service to the people, how could I contribute to the education side? I felt that it was important to assemble the important art educators and critics together in Yan’an at a symposium to discuss what needed to be changed and what needed to be pushed and promoted in arts education in China.
Rail: What did they conclude?
Guo-Qiang: A transcription was produced and it was made into a book. A lot of people are continuing the effort. The book was intentionally made like Mao’s publication that he disseminated at that time, the same format. It was really cheap, only about 3 RMB, so students could pass it on to others to read about what the idea was. Basically when the symposium was over this book was produced. There are still people discussing whether Chinese art education should follow the existing Western system of contemporary art education or China should come up with a different system. A lot of people are trying to execute what was talked about or discussed. It was an open forum, a lot of ideas poured in and it started a discussion. It was mainly in Chinese, some parts have been translated into English, and it was published in Yishu. There are still a lot of the flyers distributed at universities.
Rail: Would you think that the Chinese educational system encourages repetition and imitation? For example, at the 48th Venice Biennial in 1999 you appropriated “The Collection Courtyard” sculpture and it won the Golden Lion. What was your reaction to being sued by the Sichuan Fine Arts academy for that appropriation?
Guo-Qiang: Well, the original work in China was titled “Rent Collection Courtyard” and my work in Venice was called “Venice Rent Collection Courtyard.” The one we will see on the ramps here will be called “New York Rent Collection Courtyard.” My idea of making this work is not to do any criticism or replication but to focus on what it means for sculptors to create realist sculptures in the time the work was created. What is the destiny of artists, where should the focus be, and what is the meaning of replicating such work that existed a long time ago? The end goal is not to make perfect sculptures and have them exhibited elsewhere and then have them collected somewhere. The key is to focus on the process of fabrication of these artworks, to pay attention to the process of the artists making these sculptures, rather than where these sculptures will end up and how they will look in the end. You misinterpreted it as an act in which I just took someone’s idea and remade the sculptures for my personal gain. My goal is to take this out of context and just focus on the goal of fabrication and artistic production. I want to present it to provoke some thoughts.
Rail: Unlike many other artists of your generation in China, your work does not overtly evoke political content. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning, or would you regard the growth of your work having its own natural evolution?
Guo-Qiang: There are several points I would like to make. One is that, because of my background, I know that art can be used to change society and change people’s thinking. Knowing that, I do not want to employ it that way. I am not trying to criticize or provide some kind of opinion. If you come back to the methodology and the pure art practices that is not what I am pursuing. The second point is that art does not play a role to teach people what is right or what is wrong or to provide a certain type of proof that some opinion is correct or inaccurate. Its role is to help people preserve a distance, to provide a distance for people to see certain issues, events, and activities. With distance people can find meaning below the surface instead of taking the work at face value. The third point is I think art is fun. It should be fun for the artist and participants and viewers and not such a burden or some sort of responsibility when they experience the work. That is why this exhibition has the title “I Want to Believe,” which suggests that the artwork is a springboard for people to think about what is controversial and contradictory in our society. At the same time it does provide an outlet for enjoying the art experience and environment within the exhibition.
I am famous in the art world in China for one phrase: “art can be a reckless doing.” You can play with it.
Rail: How do you see the principles of Lee Ufan and Mono-ha in relationship to your work in terms of the time you spent in Japan from 1986 to 1995?
Guo-Qiang: Lee Ufan and Mono-ha provided a perspective in Eastern philosophy and a new method of expressing their philosophy as shown in how they worked with material and form. For Westerners, people who are not from this community looking at their work, (although their work has all these philosophical teachings and philosophical origins for people to look at) they say this is just minimalism or arte povera. All this background and underlying themes are not visible in the work itself. Of course their work’s resemblance to minimalism helped their work be more well known and promoted to the larger art world. But this discrepancy, this phenomenon when you employ Eastern philosophy and Eastern thoughts in your work, has to have a different methodology and other ways of expressing that kind of thought. You can’t just rely on the conceptual or theoretical thought. So the key is to find the right methodology to incorporate those ideas. The example of Chinese medicine as a discipline, from the philosophy to the methodology to the execution, is a good one. Everything is within one system. You not only have the theories of how everything should be executed, you also have a theory of meridian points, how you apply pressure, a different methodology mixed in with the theory. Same thing with Feng Shui, everything has its principle from the energy flow, from the relationship with the cosmos and even with urban planning. The discipline does not stop when you reach the end of the theory and philosophy. You have to extend it to a way of execution that fits with the philosophical background or skeleton that the disciple had provided.
Rail: And that leads me to my next question. What are other “unseen forces” that you feel are akin to your deep interest of Eastern philosophy besides the teaching of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Was being in Tibet part of that spiritual continuity?
Guo-Qiang: The contact with nature has enabled me to form this respect for nature, the unseen forces of nature.
Rail: What prompted you to visit the physicist Stephen Hawking in Cambridge?
Guo-Qiang: Paris actually. It was a coincidence. It wasn’t arranged. I enjoyed reading about his research and theories and one day I happened to be in the Centre Pompidou and Mr. Hawking was there too so I walked up and began talking to him. It was a chance meeting.
Rail: If chaos is the ultimate postmodern condition as some think, would you regard Taoism as postmodern deconstruction?
Guo-Qiang: I have never thought of things like this before. I haven’t done much investigation into the postmodern condition. The only thing I know is that there is this book published called How the Postmodern Condition Started and they used my art on the cover. It was published in China but it’s an English book.
Rail: Can you talk about early Russian influence on your work since you curated a show on Russian art in Shanghai?
Guo-Qiang: The exhibition I organized in Shanghai, and Beijing and Canton Province was on Konstantin Maximov (1913-94), who came to China as a teacher in the mid-1950s (for only two years). I collect his paintings. Maximov influenced the Chinese in art and in painting and his approach to art influenced an entire generation of artists and art historians. So I am examining from Maximov from the social aspect, that part of history, how it was significant and what kind of influence and effect it had on society and that entire art generation. I have about 260 pieces of work by Maximov in my collection, including his easel and the pallets of his studio.
Rail: You have said making a bomb or making a museum is the same, yet you have used the museum to make installations like Head On with multiple stuffed wolves in Germany. Would you elaborate a bit more on what you meant by that remark?
Guo-Qiang: The wolves are replicas, they are man-made in China and it is the same for the tigers. Of course, making an installation site-specifically, you have to make a connection with the context, and “Head On” it was originally developed for Deutsche Guggenheim in 2006. In Berlin you have to deal with a lot of the historical events that are well known and when you are in the museum you think about that. So I made an installation that depicts certain type of collective behavior or collective heroism, tragic and brave. There are all these wolves running and leaping and crashing into a wall. They still seem at ease in this contradictory feeling towards a transparent wall and because of its transparency it is more invisible and harder to demolish. Museums provide certain types of contexts for that, for people to take off their guards in a way and experience the installation or exhibition in a different way, a more light-hearted look at a situation.
Rail: But could you reference making the bomb?
Guo-Qiang: Perhaps a museum provides a wall for artists to crash into.
Rail: Ok, so is that referencing the bomb?
Guo-Qiang: So you kind of touch it. The Guggenheim Museum is an invisible wall. Working with the Guggenheim this time on the exhibition does prove that the museum is a very provocative and aggressive institution that gives the artist a chance to make a breathtaking physical and engineering installation. It proves that this collaboration is beneficial for both sides and also for the audience to come in to see how difficult it is to put together an installation like this. It automatically spurs this kind of effect and awe for the museum’s courage to have an exhibition like this.
Rail: Meaning it isn’t that often a museum would seem tailor-made for an artist’s work. It is still even less often, given the eccentric structure that Frank Lloyd Wright has configured, for the Guggenheim. Yet there have been a few cases, especially with Joseph Beuys in 1979, Mario Merz in 1989, Nam Jun Paik in 2000, and perhaps Mathew Barney in 2003, where they installed their work according to the given space. Would that be the same challenge for your work?
Guo-Qiang: Yes, it provides a challenge for my work. I view each ramp in the museum as a different version of a long scroll. It is as if you are walking along the ramps unfolding a scroll. It goes from the tigers to the wolves to the “New York Rent Collection Courtyard” to the drawings and the screens. It is a linear trajectory. In addition the void in the middle of the museum provides a different scenario. As you walk up through these ramps through the scrolls and you walk up and see the cars tumbling in mid air going upwards, you see this motion and this movement. And when you reach the top you come backwards again you see how everything returns to zero when you go down. So it provides multiple vantage points and a challenge for the visitor. It is hard to find another museum with these limitations, requirements and special qualities.
Rail: You say you always use Feng Shui in your work. How does that relate especially in terms of your work with explosives? In Light Circle, a piece that was commissioned by Creative Time in 2003, you collaborated with Grucci, the oldest fireworks company in the U.S. It was designed to provide a range of experiences that unfolded in three stages from five firing locations throughout Central Park.
Guo-Qiang: Because this was a post 9/11 New York I wanted to provide an anchor and reference point for people to feel hope. That is why I picked the reservoir in Central Park and made a full circle. It is kind of a protection, a symbol for comfort and fullness.
Rail: Like a mandala?
Guo-Qiang: It is more abstract than anything with a label. I use Feng Shui in my work but it is not like anything I place in the space has to follow certain rules. I got inspired from the methodology that is employed in Feng Shui. You can’t decipher it in the way that Feng Shui philosophy has certain rules and my work applies these rules. It is more of an inspirational source for my practices.
Rail: Can you talk about the project you are working on for the summer Olympics?
Guo-Qiang: What I will tell you is what I am telling everyone. There is a core team that is designing the ceremonies. There are seven of us and I am one of them. Of these seven members, some specialize in choreography or larger ceremonial activities. For example, the film director Zhang Yimou is on this core team but he is also the overall director of the ceremonies. Under this core team there are teams that specialize in music and dance and engineering and all kinds of different departments. I am the director of visual and special effects. We are in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies and the ParaOlympics opening and closing ceremonies. That’s it.
Rail: I assume there is going to be gunpowder.
Rail: For a final question, what about the controversy and curatorial fallout that happened when you, a mainland Chinese, created, “No Destruction, No Construction: Bombing the Taiwan Museum of Art?”
Guo-Qiang: I do explosion projects all over the world but there I was a mainland Chinese bombing a Taiwanese Museum. The curator of this project is also the director of the museum, and even before my project he had been targeted by a lot of the local legislators for a lot of other issues. Mi Tsai-chin, the director, is of mainland descent living in Taiwan. He was already dealing with a lot of political and local noises, a lot of objections, and my project was one of the targets that his opponents were trying to use to get him out of office. Because of this last project with me he had to step down from his directorship.