Outdoor gunpowder drawing from Mystery Circle explosion event, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


Interview with Cai Guo-Qiang

March 10, 2012
The Museum of Contemporary Art

152 N Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA

An interview with Cai Guo-Qiang by Lesley Ma, on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder’ at The Geffen Contemporary at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles (April 8 through September 3 2012)

In late 2010, as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, prepared to mount a seminal historical survey of Land Art curated by former senior curator Phillip Kaiser and UCLA art historian Miwon Kwon, Director Jeffrey Deitch commissioned Cai Guo-Qiang to create new works that would be on display alongside the Land Art exhibition in the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Deitch hoped to spark a dialogue between an historical movement and a contemporary artist who has been consistently concerned with human relations with the land in his work. Cai then worked with Kaiser on conceiving his show, ‘Sky Ladder’, which serves as a self-reflection on his long-term fascination with the unseen world. The exhibition opened with the outdoor explosion event on April 7, Mystery Circle, a spectacular launch of 40,000 rockets forming patterns of crop circles and an alien figure on the Geffen’s exterior wall. The indoor space housed an installation on the ceiling, Crop Circles, flanked by three large-scale gunpowder paintings on the walls. Like many of Cai’s projects, the ‘show’ begins long before the official opening date, as the artist created gunpowder paintings in the museum galleries as a public event at least a month prior to the opening. This interview took place after a week-long gunpowder drawing creation at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA from March 5 to 9 2012, where around 100 volunteers from the Los Angeles area collaborated with Cai and his studio staff in making three works. The artist is interviewed by Lesley Ma, former project director at Cai Studio and MOCA’s Curatorial Coordinator for ‘Sky Ladder.’

Lesley Ma (LM): I am very interested in the changes in the production process involved in the gunpowder drawings. Before, most of them were produced in your studio in Long Island, with the help of your studio assistants. In my recollection, Same Word, Same Root, Same Seed, made in 2006 in Quanzhou (Fujian, China), was the first major attempt to invite volunteers, people who were not your studio assistants, to help with the production. From your perspective, how does this change from a studio mode to a more participatory process affect your mindset and method when making drawings?

Cai Guo-Qiang (CGQ): Besides the 2006 piece you mentioned, the piece Drawing for Footprints of History, made for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was also produced in Quanzhou with lots of help from friends and family. Of course when I work in the studio, I depend on one or two assistants, and sometimes I’ll ask pyrotechnicians from firework companies to help on large-scale works. However I’ve always noticed a phenomenon: whenever I make huge drawings in an exhibition space, whether at Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London, or elsewhere, there are always lots of people watching. Though the production process is not open to the public, museum staff typically attends, and of course the press is also invited. It’s a fact that the live production of the drawings is quite spectacular. I’ve never thought of what I am doing as performance, because when we consider ourselves performing, we plan according to time, rhythm, and prearranged content. However I need to rest, use the bathroom, or lie down in order to recuperate my mind. Therefore it’s not a performance. But what is it exactly? I decided to call it an ‘open production’, in which the artist makes his working process public for people to enjoy. You probably remember that when we made drawings in my studio in Long Island, people often drove to see the production. I think there are two reasons why the production process is such a visual spectacle: one is that gunpowder is dangerous, and the other is the ritualistic quality of fire. The danger of gunpowder is associated with life and destiny. People are willing to endure the viewing process and all the procedures that lead to the dramatic change at the instant of explosion. They are curious about what happens in the end. For instance, yesterday the whole space reeked of smoke after the explosion, but people were eager to see the drawing when we lifted the cardboard after the smoke cleared. Before and after the explosion, there is a change from the invisible to the visible, an expectation of the transformation of energy. The ritual in fire and gunpowder is related to the ancient practice of fortune telling and the fate of the artwork. When seeing the process, the audience feels connected to the artist’s fate. This model is quite different from performance art, because people know a performance is the result of many rehearsals. In an open production, viewers not only watch a performance, but they also become connected to the explosion. Everyone senses the uncertainty while waiting for the result together, wondering whether this work will succeed or not. What they care about is the unfolding of the concept the artist creates.

I first embarked on open production in late 2009 in Taiwan, officially allowing the public to participate in the production of drawings. The message is that I hope contemporary art is not just a game confined to small circles, that more and more people can see and feel what an artist does, how s/he works, the challenges, the difficulties, and the pleasures that occur in the process. It was broadcasted live on cell phones, the Internet, and television. It’s not just about showcasing artworks to the audience, but also making the art production process part of people’s lives. This has been particularly inspiring for me. Later, when I went to Houston, Mexico City, Donetsk (Ukraine), Doha, and Hangzhou, I always employed the method of open production, and I gradually understood the meaning of it. In each of these places, people’s cultural habits, working attitudes, and nationalities among many other things were all different from one another. They would influence and intervene with my artistic style and mentality. The volunteers in LA had different upbringings and backgrounds: some studied fine art; others industrial design or oil painting; some liked calligraphy and stencil cutting. Not to mention those who had nothing to do with the arts, such as restaurateurs. There was a kind of contingency in the way they dealt with shaping and cutting cardboard and so on. For me these volunteers are like gunpowder in that they are another spontaneous and uncontrollable element. Their involvement challenges the uncertainties and anxieties of my creative process, which continues to stimulate my art practice.

Yesterday, we were working with high school students to create over a hundred images. If the artist thought, ‘Okay, if Einstein is here, Hawking should go here; if Gagarin is there, the space shuttle Challenger should be there.’ You can keep making up stories, because there are always stories behind each of the images. However, if it’s all done by oneself from conception to layout to explosion, there is no disruption. It becomes too simple and unobstructed, and therefore lacks meaning. It’s against the nature of gunpowder if you follow your plan from beginning to end. So I let the volunteers each pick one image that they liked from the hundred scattered all over the ground, and put it in a place they thought appropriate. When they were all done, I looked at it. It was really beautiful and made a lot of sense; it was even quite romantic to some extent. Then they each selected a second image. Now that we have an image here, which one should be next to it to construct a relationship? Finally I asked them to find some fragments to adjust the relationship between one image and another. Everybody did a great job, and there was hardly anything we needed to rearrange. The process is not only about volunteering, or about allowing the public to watch me at work, or sharing the experience with young artists and people in general. The volunteers actually become part of the creation, and their energy, determination, experience, and aesthetics are all part of the work.

LM: So you give a lot of trust to the volunteers in this process.

CGQ: That’s right.

LM: Although you have said it can feel unsettling because you can’t predict their choices, you are being generous by giving them a chance, and you actually trust the choices they make for you.

CGQ: But I know it is risky, because you have no idea whether or not you have control over the whole thing. It’s crucial to incorporate everything into an entity at the moment of explosion, so that this entity becomes an artwork. For example, if many young people were participating in the production of an artwork, it may have resulted in childish drawings, or the outcome might have been so trivial and dispersed that there was no power or any kind of spiritual, coherent idea. You have to be really careful.

View of just-ignited gunpowder drawing Childhood Spaceship, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

LM: The different images in the big drawing Childhood Spaceship came from your life stories, and you let the volunteers rearrange them. It is as if you are gathering their different logic systems to create a new story through the explosion.

CGQ: Yes, to integrate them. I hope in the end, energy can tie all these bits and pieces together.

LM: Do you find the interaction with volunteers to be akin to connecting fates?

CGQ: Of course. It’s also related to my physical condition and the theme of the work. Some themes bring me closer to them, while others distance me from them. When I created the landscape drawing Odyssey in Houston, I felt very close to the local people, because whenever I finished an ink draft on cardboard, they’d cut it according to my strokes, and that relationship was very intimate. But why? They didn’t know much about classical Chinese landscape painting, so they were mainly collaborating with me. Their culture as a whole was helping me, so it was a landscape that I could control. On the other hand, the works at MOCA entail my life stories, so I would rather distance myself a little. Otherwise they’d be too personal, and that would not be interesting. There are things I choose to collaborate on more closely, and others to which I think I should keep a certain distance. For Desire for Zero Gravity, the volunteers and I learned a lot from each other, because it’s a theme to which we can all relate. For instance, one of the early flying vehicles was supposed to be lifted by birds and people from earlier eras enjoyed simple ideas, like using wind power to send a sailboat into outer space. I would first draw a quick sketch for the volunteers and then they would cut the sketch into a stencil. Before they finished, I’d show them historical images and explain how to adjust the stencil. Thus collaborations are a continuous back-and-forth. They use their judgments based on my sketches. They might not comprehend some parts, the stencil may be impossible to cut, or they may pay attention to those parts that preserve the liveliness of the sketches. In a sense, everyone picks and chooses the merits in my sketches and what they respond to in them, which is really interesting. Some stencils become quite rigid, and others more fluid. Either way, I tried to keep everyone’s style when adjusting. But in the end, I discovered that because all these figures who attempted to defy gravity were from different historical periods, the composition looked messy. Since the volunteers appreciated the sketch-like quality of the drawing, after adding gunpowder, I used charcoal to touch it up, adding a few strokes on the planes, the balloons, the kites, etc. to unify the composition again. This is a new method I employed.

LM: This leads to my next question. The way you make drawings is actually similar to collage, because you layer cardboard stencils on top of a large surface, and you use different materials such as cardboard, glassine paper, and gunpowder. There are also multiple layers in your artistic conception—your life stories. The selection of volunteers, and their choices of your stories constitute additional invisible layers of meanings. At the moment of ignition, all layers are compressed into one. I sense it’s like making some kind of stew by mixing all these layers, which eventually become your work. It seems your starting point was quite different when you first began making drawings.

CGQ: Before, my drawings mostly started with outdoor explosion projects, such as Fetus Movement II (1992), Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters (1993), Earth Has Its Black Hole Too (1994), etc. These all represented actual events that were about to happen, so I pursued a freehandedness in my drawings to express the linear motion in Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, or the spiraling sensation in Earth Has Its Black Hole Too. Therefore my techniques were rather simple. I hardly used any cardboard stencils, because there was no need to reference figural imagery, and what was expressed were my personal feelings about these outdoor explosion projects that I was about to make. Later on, I realized that if I wanted to remain interested in gunpowder, to push it forward, it was not enough to just make drawings. If I was merely drawing, existing techniques are sufficient, and I would tire of it. The primary concern is how to address painterly issues, since my drawings are a kind of painting, and how to bring them back to the realm of painting, in the sense that for thousands of years, painters have had to face questions like composition, figuration, density, rhythm, texture, and so on. There are endless challenges once you take the act of painting as the subject: in Doha I adopted many Arabic decorative details; in Houston I tried to express the ethereality in literati thought through the explosion. In Hangzhou I created Tides. I absorbed how the ancients painted tidal waves, how the waves change slowly from tranquil swells to choppy breaks to monstrous surges, and how the surface appears right before the waves surge. It’s necessary to study how ancient Chinese read these details, and one finds that they were already very abstract, beautiful, and sensible. So the issue of painting is a serious question: how do you approach it? How do I control and represent what I see versus what’s on the canvas? This control is extremely difficult: it’s much more difficult to control the act of painting than drawing, and it demands a richer academic vocabulary. Therefore I now often approach drawing from the perspective of painting, so the three pieces we made in LA should be seen as paintings rather than drawings. Chaos in Nature is a painting about natural forces; Desire for Zero Gravity is about humans defying gravity; and Childhood Spaceship is about myself communicating with unseen worlds. These paintings are not about an outdoor explosion; they are my life stories. There was a shift in subject matter, and my methods are always changing.

Cai Guo-Qiang sprinkling gunpowder onto canvas to create Chaos in Nature, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

For Chaos in Nature, I tried to depict the movement of nature on the cardboard like in an ink painting. Then the volunteers imitated me and cut out those lines of movement. After that I traced these lines by sprinkling gunpowder, and igniting the drawing to form a state of chaos. I kept these lines to a minimum, and only used them to construct a framework for regulating the rhythm and the dynamics of the painting.

With Desire for Zero Gravity, because there are all sorts of specific figures from different time periods alongside various kinds of gunpowder, I left a lot of blank space between the figures on the canvas, and only let them collide and connect with each other when appropriate. The shapes are like an archipelago in the sea, and I used charcoal to connect them to each other. Painters usually start with a draft on the canvas before they paint.

Why do I choose charcoal instead of oil pastel or another material? Because charcoal is itself a type of gunpowder. The black charcoal powder burns efficiently on canvas during the explosion and blends well with gunpowder. So they share a natural language. In large-scale paintings, it’s hard to depict the universe because it’s a void. What people want to see are things that move the artist: the sensations of vastness, profundity, intensity, and so on and so forth. Other than these goals, you also need to spell out your message in large paintings. It would be stupid if I still used fuses to outline the figures of Hawking or Einstein like we used to. What would be the point? We should bravely use computers to create laser-cut stencils. After the explosion, the images resemble photographs and prints. Gunpowder can play the role of photographer or printer, printing and dyeing . The language of gunpowder is becoming richer and richer: it can splash like ink, or act like oil paint in some paintings, yet it becomes photographic and print-like in others. However, in addition to these roles it plays, it also has its own role. It is an energy that can destroy all these roles as well as construct others.

LM: So the gunpowder is actually your painting assistant.

CGQ: Gunpowder is my teacher.

LM: All your work can be connected by the principle that gunpowder is inherently organic and unpredictable. Gunpowder is in fact similar to soil…

CGQ: Right, mineral.

LM: It’s a material from the earth. When MOCA invited you to do this show, the director Jeffrey Deitch and the curator hoped it would somehow be connected to ‘Ends of the Earth’, the historical review of Land Art. How did you develop the theme of the exhibition when you first heard their suggestion?

45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet: Project for Extraterrestrials No.3, realized in Aix-en-Provence, France, 1990. Photo courtesy Cai Studio

CGQ: My first impression was that of course there is a certain kind of continuity between Land Art and my early Projects for Extraterrestrials from the 1990s. Can we look beyond the earth and contemplate art and humanity from a greater scale? I knew in Land Art, artists mostly used land as the subject, and they didn’t think about things beyond the earth. That’s why I made Projects for Extraterrestrials. However I think maybe I should take this opportunity to discuss my personal view on the cosmos. I’ve done retrospectives, as well as major solo shows in many museums. I felt those shows helped better categorize my work: the materials, drawings, explosion events, installations, and social projects. Everything is already clearly organized, but there has been little discussion on my understanding of the universe, especially in terms of how my view on the cosmos influences my methodology. This is a key point that I have been proactively reflecting upon since living in Japan in the 80s. People have been dazzled by my ever-changing themes and works. In other words, they think these themes are sufficient for explaining my practice. There are enough stories to discuss in the ninety-nine wolves in Head On, or Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters. People forget why I can work with Chinese medicine, feng shui, wolves, and explosions all at the same time, and what my values involve. In fact you have to see the point of origin in my cosmology in order to understand why I can move freely between cars, wolves, and everything else. It’s not merely an astrophysical concept; my methodology also encompasses an understanding of time and space, in both Western literature and Eastern thought, in which there are gods, spirits and ghosts, my grandmother’s religious beliefs, Chinese medicine, the qi flowing through the meridians of mountains and plains, and so on and so forth. All these together form my all-inclusive and contradictory way of thinking.

Since my view on the cosmos is so comprehensive and contradictory, it naturally shapes my methodology, within which things can be carefree, all embracing, and contradictory. Thus in this exhibition, I emphasize how I absorb the conceptual principles of feng shui and Chinese medicine—the methodologies they use to perceive and understand the world, and how these are closely connected to the ways they express the world. It’s not only about finding qi in the land, or looking at feng shui. There is a knowledge system for looking, right? Then, you need to find a great location using the universe and sky, the mountains and plains. That’s their wisdom. Next, how do you construct (營造 ying zao) at this location? ‘營造’ ying zao are two key words: 營 ying means to operate, to conceive; 造 zao is to build, or to fabricate. The word we have now for architecture (建築 jian zhu) only implies building, but not operating. For Chinese in the past, ‘營造’ also entailed concept and design. I drew from this methodology. Chinese medicine is the same in that it also has a rigid methodology. It emphasizes various ‘views’ (觀 guan): an overall view, a balanced view. From these ‘views’, one can grasp how practitioners diagnose life and cure it. They look, listen, question, and feel the patient’s pulse. There are methods for all types of situations. I’ve always been investigating how I can apply these principles in my own work.

LM: You said you have been discussing your cosmology since the 1980s in Japan, and you’ve kept moving forward in this direction, and that all of your works are related to it no matter what. You also understand that for works such as Head On and Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters, the more superficial aspects are easy for people to grasp and thus draw conclusions about what you are doing. However, do you feel that you have been working on this topic for so long but still find yourself explaining the cosmology behind your works? Is it because your works are generally crowd-pleasing? Do you still often face these contradictions when you’re working? Or can I ask whether you worry about whether or not the audience picks up on your cosmology? In other words, maybe they don’t actually understand what you are trying to do; therefore you still need to explain?

CGQ: It’s not like that. The main problem is, artists themselves are contradictory, and so are their works. The charm of art is interesting; what an artist does can be discussed and discovered by many, many scholars for decades or even centuries. But the artist may not have much patience. He thinks he knows himself, but that’s not always the case. I often have the urge to tell people the thoughts behind my work, why I do this or that, or why people are so confused by what I make. The artist proactively tries to resolve these issues without telling the audience the answers. The contradiction lies in the fact that even if he doesn’t work it out in the end, it’s still alright—as long as the works are interesting and he leaves enough space and time for art history to continue its exploration. Sometimes when I talk about my points of view, it actually helps me find out more about who I am. For me, when I make these three drawings, I immediately know that what to draw and how to draw it are not of the utmost importance, but rather, why do I draw? It brings me back to my youth. Why do I love art? Why do I need to draw? Going back to humanity as a whole, throughout millenniums of art history, why is there art? What is it for? This process keeps me swinging back and forth. However, I realize that I have been in the West for so long, I should step back and use this opportunity, since this exhibition is not big, and the budget is limited. Meaning, limitations and small spaces are not necessarily a bad thing. MOCA is an academic institution; hence this exhibition is an opportunity to analyze an academic question. Suppose this was a big show with a big budget. Then I’d need to churn out a lot of works to fill many exhibition spaces and I wouldn’t be able to focus on the whole exhibition in a scholarly way. With ‘Ends of the Earth’ simultaneously showing in the next room, viewers can think about this work in concert with that of other artists.

LM: How do you see your relationship with Land Art?

CGQ: I don’t have a clear view on it yet, because it should be decided by art history. But I feel that the existence of Land Art makes us quickly understand the intense changes in contemporary art in the West. With the establishment of galleries and museums, many artists felt the need to go outside, though from today’s point of view, it looks like more artists have returned to the system. At the time, artists were like a bunch of animals that couldn’t be contained. They had to run outside. I feel that I myself am quite contradictory. To some extent my work is ‘in vogue.’ That has to do with my personality and my culture, as well as the materials I use, of course. But I should say there is basically nothing Pop in my work. In a sense it embodies something conservative that will always be there.

LM: I have always felt that your work and the methods you use to produce it are very traditional. Your cosmology, your lifestyle, your attitude towards canvas and paper are actually all quite traditional. Gunpowder is something traditional too, but strangely enough, when gunpowder comes into play, it’s no longer completely traditional. That’s where it’s interesting.

CGQ: That was also why I needed to find something to destroy these things, because I can rely on the destructive element of gunpowder. Before I had gunpowder, the works I made were always quite abstract, like Typhoon, which was made with a hairdryer. There were all kinds of works. After the space shuttle Challenger failed, I blew a huge balloon and popped it. Then I hung the remains of the burst balloon, and stuck a few Chinese newspaper clippings of the Challenger to the wall. It looked visually modern, quite casual and relaxed, but in fact it was because I didn’t have a prop to encapsulate all these traditions, and then knock it over.

45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet: Project for Extraterrestrials No.3, realized in Aix-en-Provence, France, 1990. Photo courtesy Cai Studio

LM: Your earlier works, say for example, 45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet in France (1990), stems from your cosmology, and is related to your curiosity towards extraterrestrials. Those works may be more relevant to the so-called Land Art in the West, at least in terms of visual and bodily experience. I understand what you mean by saying that whether they are related or not should be researched by art historians. For instance, in the comparison between Eastern art and Western art, there are things that look alike on the surface, but have very different motives. Artists as well as scholars can discuss these relationships.

CGQ: In fact most of the time, when an artist creates something, there is no distinction between East and West, and it doesn’t matter if one artist’s work is similar with someone else’s work. There are many Western artists whose works resemble mine, and I’ve thought, aren’t they just like me? They exhibit rocks, or make animals too. Art itself is already all mixed up. The key is that you are continuing your path, and they are continuing theirs. Every now and then two paths cross, and the paths may even overlap again some other time. In the end, to each their own. When artists’ paths cross, their works may look alike, but it doesn’t matter. Take for instance the Mystery Circleexplosion event with 40,000 mini rockets on the wall. From a purely linguistic standpoint it sounds very Western. It’s probably called ‘universality’ in western languages; a universal language where there is nothing Eastern about it.

LM: I think this piece on the outside wall of MOCA is like a large theater, and you are creating an important performance and backdrop for the theater. What I find fascinating is that both your outdoor and indoor pieces relate to theatricality. Not only the public production of drawings, but also the dialogue you have with the space. My guess is that because of your early training in theater, the way you treat space distinguishes you from artists who started as painters. Regardless if what’s left in the end are paintings on the wall or installations, your starting point is different.

CGQ: The space in MOCA is actually quite difficult to work with: the ceiling is cluttered, the walls are different heights, one of the walls is actually a rolling gate, another has steps and a door entrance to the hall. These are serious defects. The toughest part about the space is the two rows of columns, which are not simply individual columns, but columns with crisscrossed braces between some of them. Most artists would have a hard time working in this space. Once I saw the space, I knew right away that I would have to incorporate these columns into the overall exhibition; otherwise there would have been no way I could have made an installation in the space. The placement of Crop Circles conceals the ceiling, and the columns form two corridors. The work on the ceiling then becomes an extension of the corridor. Because of the columns, this ‘field’ of crop circles seems boundless. So the columns actually save it, and turn it into a space as well as an installation. Second, because there is a large central space, I was able to divide it into three interconnected sections. The crop circle tilted at a certain degree on the ceiling and with the enormous drawing behind it, they form a ‘world.’

On the other hand, Crop Circles is in dialogue with Chaos in Nature and Desire for Zero Gravity. People always say that crop circles are made by UFOs and aliens. They’re all interrelated, but the language of the relationship is different. There is a big wall on this side, and this is one kind of relation. There are several doors that penetrate the wall on the other side; you can connect to it with a different theme. There is a hierarchy. It’s very difficult to make a work for a wall this large. You think you have a big blank wall to work with, but then you try to stand further back to look at it and there is no view from further back; the columns block the view. Therefore you always have to use the principles in feng shui, and deal with what nature gives you. The same goes for the exhibition gallery. My approach was to first look for its disadvantages. Most artists can see what’s good but not necessarily what’s bad, just like most writers know which phrases are brilliant in their writing, but not always what’s weak. For the large drawing, it needed to be seen as something concrete because you can’t step back. The composition could not be piecemeal. I am quite satisfied with the spatial treatment, especially with the ‘deep hole’ on the right side that leads to another strange door. It only makes sense if you bring the audience into [the resulting video projection theater], otherwise how would you deal with this ’deep hole’? Like a dark corner in your house that’s always empty and has no window, it will attract negative and ‘dirty’ energy. Therefore there had to be video projections in the ‘deep hole’, so that people would walk in to enliven it. It was a good way to utilize the space.

As for the outdoors, it was important not to give it the same treatment as the indoor space. You can discuss many things inside, but I wanted to keep things simple outside, since [the Mystery Circleexplosion event] will be over in a matter of seconds. It so happens that an artist like me can work with this possibility—a massive wall that you rarely encounter at museums. I frequently make site visits to museums, and I’d tell their staff the most valuable part of the museum is, say for example, the skylight-filled lobby. I’d tell them, you should let artists use this space, and not just throw parties here; it should be turned into an exhibition space.

Mystery Circle explosion event, realized on site at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The exterior wall of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA is quite amazing. We looked around and thought that wall was the best. It’s also fortuitous that two years ago, I went to Yanshui in southern Taiwan specifically to see mini rockets. But this is of course not enough; there are plenty of other artists who have seen mini rockets, right? My method is that [I store] whatever I see, and then someday I can just take it out of my pocket and turn it into something. Usually people only go see the rockets at night. ‘Bang bang bang!’ and they go home happy. I went there in the afternoon to learn about the setup, and the workers told me many stories. This was very important, and I am keen on conversing with and learning from the local people. As soon as I arrived in Yanshui, I visited the village bureau and they told me about their tradition, their history, and their specialized techniques. They showed me the larger factories, but I wanted to see the small workshops. After the visit I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this new knowledge, so I left it at that. Later in Los Angeles, Mystery Circle was to happen. In the beginning I wanted to use mini rockets outdoors to make an image of Stephen Hawking and an alien, but none of the designs would show the distinct characteristics of mini rockets. Mini rockets are great because you can use tens of thousands of…

LM: Like thousands of troops on horseback coming at you.

Detail of mini rockets for Mystery Circle explosion event, realized on site at the Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

CGQ: Countless. So I was not satisfied for a long time, and I tried to propose something for the sky. Perhaps we could draw crop circles in the sky with an airplane? Underneath there would be an image of an alien exploded onto the wall, so the two-dimensional drawing on the wall would be juxtaposed with the three-dimensional work in the sky, and the two would mesh together… However Jeffrey (Deitch) didn’t think we could create the sky drawing during the day because visitors could only come to the opening at night. The only solution was to make a crop circle. When I thought about the crop circle, everything fell into place: the mini rockets are like stalks of wheat in a field, and the entire pattern of gigantic circles would be made of 40,000 mini rockets. Now it all makes sense. Energy is released at the right moment. Sometimes you can’t do what you think, because it’s not time yet. When it finally happens, I would say it’s because of luck. The combination of the mini rockets I saw before and the theme of crop circles necessitated the work. As long as it can be done, I look forward to the unforgettable moment of explosion just like all the other spectators.

LM: This is the first time a ‘real’ alien figure appears in your work, which is outlined with fuses. Of course you have used fuses before to create images of human figures or a human face, but it’s your first time making an alien…

Outdoor gunpowder drawing from Mystery Circle explosion event, Los Angeles, 2012. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

CGQ: I think people are generally still skeptical of crop circles – are they real or fake? Crop circles are supernatural and mysterious. There have been tens of thousands of crop circles throughout human history, but there is questionable proof of aliens ever having been caught, so people think that 80% must have been made by men. Even if 9,999 out of 10,000 were made by men, there is still one that was not, so who made it? No one knows. Aliens? Animals? This will always be a conundrum for humans. It’s the same with aliens, so let’s just create one for argument’s sake. It’s actually ridiculous to ask whether they are real or not. I may seem like a serious person, but I actually have a child-like side that’s playful and mischievous. There are two fundamental things: luck and contentment. I chose to make art, and it turned out that I am a person who is passionate about making it, so all’s well that ends well. It gives me a sense of purpose; I should commit myself to art and make more work. What else can I do anyway?

LM: Speaking of making art and what one has to endure in order to make art, we encounter many problems when we make exhibitions. I was thinking that making gunpowder drawings and the outdoor Mystery Circle explosion event in Los Angeles was like an assignment from you for MOCA, a prescription. It’s as though you are casting a spell for the director, and expelling the museum’s unpleasant past with your explosion…

CGQ: I hope so, at least to bring a little more positive energy. If we don’t find it interesting anymore, how can viewers be interested? If we don’t love it, how can viewers love it? Working for a museum also means figuring out how to make it more fun. Museums are still important in this day and age, because they allow us to see things we don’t normally see in our everyday lives. Many artists make things at home the moment they wake up, and they are continuing the same work that has been done throughout human history. Therefore people like to come to museums to be liberated and to be themselves. It’s why even in different cultures and countries, people still come to see my work, and why my shows are sometimes very popular. It’s not because audiences love the Chinese or Chinese culture, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t speak fluent English. As long as my work speaks to people’s inner child, as long as they see their own youth in it, they will see interesting and fun things. These things can be enjoyed and shared, and they will never change with time.

CAI GUOQIANG was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China. Trained in stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy, his work has since crossed multiple mediums within art, including drawing, installation, video and performance art. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, he explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, an inquiry that eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale and to the development of his signature explosion events. Drawing upon Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, these projects and events aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them, utilizing a site-specific approach to culture and history. He currently lives and works in New York.

Cai was awarded the Japan Cultural Design Prize in 1995 and the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. In the following years, he has received the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), New England for Best Installation or Single Work in a Museum (2005), the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize (2007), the 20th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize (2009), and AICA’s first place for Best Project in a Public Space for Cai Guo-Qiang: Fallen Blossoms (2010).

Conducted in Chinese and translated by Xiaofei Mo, edited by Daisley Kramer