Inopportune: Stage One, 2004 is one of Cai’s largest installations. Nine cars are arranged tumbling and suspended in mid-air, composing a stop-motion-like cinematic progression articulated by pulsing dynamic colour sequenced multichannel light tubes. The work was influenced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as Cai’s wife and daughter were in their New York home while Cai was working in Italy. The New York Times acclaims Inopportune: Stage One as “one of the most striking pieces in his current retrospective.” The work is currently recreated for the Guggenheim.
Cai’s father was a traditional brush painter and calligrapher. He ran a state-controlled bookstore where he received translations of Western literature forbidden to the general population, allowing Cai to read them quickly before they were delivered to their recipients in the local Communist Party. Cai told the New York Times in the article The Pyrotechnic Imagination “When I was young, I didn’t want to do traditional painting and calligraphy. I deliberately wanted to separate from my father so I could feel I existed myself. Increasingly, though, I find that I was also influenced by my parents.”
Travels in the Mediterranean,2010 the drawing is composed of gunpowder on paper with complimentary yellow hue of the pond water achieved through the use of olive oil.
Odyssey, 2010 is composed of gunpowder on paper mounted on wood as a 42-panel screen.
Cai desperately wanted to leave China to liberate himself from Chinese artistic tradition to pursue his contemporary art. In China he experimented with natural mediums on canvas, like blowing a fan over paint. In 1984 he began using gunpowder, unrolling firecrackers and sprinkling the powder on the canvas and lighting it. In 1986, he obtained a student visa to Japan where he was freer to pursue his expression.
Moving to New York in 1995 for study, Cai continued the explosion events, documenting them with gunpowder drawings. Cai explains his gunpowder drawings as “a form of painting, with the same problems as painting: structure, composition, brightness, rhythm and the spirit of the two-dimensional.”
Fragile, 2011 gunpowder on 480 panels of porcelain displayed in the Arab Museum in Qatar.
In the Wall Street Journal Magazine article Drawing Fire Cai explains “Gunpowder in Chinese means ‘fire medicine.’ It was traditionally used in alchemy. The Taoists discovered it when they were looking for ways to preserve their longevity. And throughout Chinese history and culture, gunpowder also has had a power to ward off evil and dispel any bad energies. I see gunpowder as a way of transforming natural energies: There’s an impact from the sound; there’s the physicality of the heat. I believe in its mystical properties.”
Passage, 2002 as part of Ethereal Flowers exposition, composed of stone foundation, rubbing alcohol mixture, and flame.
Cai’s story came full circle when asked to supervise the visual-and-special-effects department for the ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. His international reputation has warmed the government to his contemporary art. Cai continues to work from time-to-time in his hometown of Quanzhou, but maintains his youthful sentiment for freedom, “You can do things for your country, but you cannot be imprisoned by it.”