Cai Guo-Qiang
© James Ferguson

As I walk through Manhattan’s East Village towards the studio of Cai Guo-Qiang, I pass brownstones, hair salons and some guys hanging around speaking Italian. The first sign that I might be nearing the studio is a mirror-box sitting on the sidewalk, underneath the window beds, that doesn’t quite blend in. Then a red door, guarded by a little stone lion and the Chinese character for luck. I’ve come to the right spot.

I’m meeting Cai (pronounced “Tsai”) for lunch at his studio in New York, where the Chinese artist has been based for more than a decade, because I’m told this is where he always eats lunch. He is looking relaxed, wearing a brown T-shirt and close-cropped grey hair, and greets me with a firm handshake that hints at how much time this 59-year-old spends at the gym.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the unmarked door, Cai is one of the most remarkable artists working today. He specialises in gunpowder, and creates firework art on an unparalleled scale — think of a chain of explosions that extends the Great Wall of China by 10km, or a flock of black “birds” appearing in the desert in Doha.

In 2008 he launched the giant footsteps that marched over Beijing during the opening ceremony for the Olympics. More recently, he created a “Sky Ladder” that sent fiery rungs climbing half a kilometre into the clouds. Not all of these projects succeed (“Sky Ladder”, an obsessional quest that was the subject of a documentary film last year, took three attempts.) But they have pushed an old medium in new directions — Cai even makes paintings with gunpowder, to explosive and ethereal effect.

A sweet, oily aroma is wafting across the office, so while Cai finishes a meeting, I wander over to the kitchen to see what’s cooking. One of the cooks points out the day’s dishes: pork ribs made with Coca-Cola, steamed cod, water spinach with garlic, lily bulbs with celery and sausage, green beans and an unusual crêpe made from lotus root, which turns out to be a studio speciality.

My mouth waters as we discuss the food and, as if on cue, an assistant appears to steer me into the main gallery. The room is huge — big enough to hold a dozen of Cai’s giant gunpowder works, which are resting on the floor and leaning against the walls, some more than seven metres long. At a distance the paintings appear as colourful, explosive blooms, so that the bright room feels almost like a garden. In the centre, a table has been laid for two.

Cai wanders in and casually finds his sweater on a bench. But there’s nothing casual about our dining table: the food is laid out symmetrically in six dishes, with a bowl of soup at each place, and an open bottle of wine waiting on the table. As we sit, Cai asks one of his studio managers to take a picture of us, and I feel as if I’ve stepped into a piece of performance art. He pours the wine and I start with the question that’s been uppermost in my mind since I walked through the door into this Mandarin-speaking world. It feels like a Chinese cocoon, so why is he based here in New York?

As we start our soup, a broth flavoured with pork and squash, Cai recounts how he left China when he was 29, and moved to Japan. It was 1986, a time when China’s opening to the world after decades of cultural isolation led to a wave of exploration. “At the time, every­one wanted to go abroad and study, and I did too. In the field I was in, contemporary art, the space for doing this in China was small,” he says, speaking Mandarin with a slight Fujianese lilt.

After nearly a decade in Japan, where he scraped by in a rural fishing village doing paintings and installation pieces, he moved to New York. Cai chuckles as he points out that he now earns more from flying into Japan to collect prizes such as the prestigious Praemium Imperiale, than he ever made while living there.

Despite this cosmopolitan background, Cai still picks up his soup bowl and slurps from it directly, as is common in China. He points out that his studio is more multicultural than it appears too, with people from all parts of China — mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan — as well as Japan. “Because through art, through people working together and building relationships and trust, people can overcome the problems of politics,” he says, dishing some lily bulbs on to my plate. “Have some, these are good for girls, and good for the skin,” he says, a comment that in China would be considered the mark of a gracious host.

That all sounds nice, I say, biting the lily bulbs, which turn out to be tasty tubers with a bit of crunch — but artists can’t really avoid politics, can they?

“That’s true, I can’t avoid politics either,” he says. He recalls going back to China to help with the 2008 Olympics. At the time my co-operation with the Chinese government was full of frustration, doubts, it was not easy,” he says. “Art should not be a tool of politics, but sometimes art can help make the political climate more open and help society become more free. In my own art, I try to use my personal voice and effort to enable some Chinese people to see the possibilities of another kind of China. A more open China.”

'The Death of Sunflower' (2017)

To his critics, Cai has at times been an enabler of the Chinese regime, working with the government to design fireworks not only for the Olympics but for 2009’s 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. But he bristles at the way art has become so politicised for Chinese artists, and the way that western media tends to see all Chinese art through a political lens. “I can come back and do things for China; that is not a problem, but I also have my own viewpoint, my own principles,” he insists.

We talk about the 2008 Olympics, and how they had the effect of making the country more closed, rather than open. At the time I had been in Beijing to cover the games, and I learn that Cai’s courtyard house there is in the same neighbourhood where I later lived. We reminisce about life in Beijing’s old alleyways, known as hutongs.

I serve him some spare ribs, and ask about his upcoming exhibition in Moscow, which is about the most political topic of all — the October Revolution. It’s the centenary of the coup that gave birth to the first socialist government in the world. As we nibble on the spare ribs (always a delicate task when eating with chopsticks), Cai tells me he has just received word that the authorities in Moscow have rejected his grand firework performance, titled “October”, which was to have taken place in Red Square and had been in planning for more than a year.

'Adolescent Fling' (2016)

“Of course they wouldn’t give a reason, they just say, ‘Oh it might interfere with security for the helipad inside Kremlin, etc.’ But this was all stuff that they would have known beforehand,” Cai says. His solo exhibition at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, also called October, is still going ahead, but the explosion event — a theatrical three-act work set to music that was to have included teardrops and a giant red star — will not happen.

“They were always trying to decide, do we commemorate the October Revolution, or do we not commemorate it? The choice they made was not to commemorate it,” he says. “If we do commemorate it, then we have to discuss it, study it, talk about communism, talk about the Communist party. It could easily tear apart their society and bring about instability — in that way it is quite similar to China.”

The way history falls victim to totalitarian regimes is something that Cai has experienced first-hand, and he tells me that as he prepares his exhibition, he has drawn from his own past in the Cultural Revolution that ravaged China from 1966 to 1976. He has just returned from his hometown, Quanzhou, where he made a rubbing of a giant face of Mao Zedong that was carved into the mountain when he was a child. “At first I was very nervous [about this exhibition] but I’ve turned it into something that is really about my own destiny, my own life,” he says, dishing some cod on my plate. The theme of the exhibition is revolution, romance, ideals, people searching for a more perfect society, he explains — and also all the problems that came about as a result of that search.

'Footprints of History': fireworks project for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

He has started writing essays for the exhibition about his own experiences during the Cultural Revolution, and he tells me how in third grade he led his classmates as they bullied their teacher and tried to bring her out for a public denunciation, known as a “struggle session”. He recalls how beautiful she was, and how he lied about something she had said, as he led the charge against her. “As I was writing it, I was very sad, I even cried,” he says slowly, “But when I was little I was very revolutionary.”

Sitting here in New York, it seems easy to discuss these topics, I say, but stories like these are still taboo in China. Even between friends, the Cultural Revolution is almost never discussed. “It’s true, people have selective memory when it comes to these things. I’m that way too, so it is really through this Pushkin exhibition that I’ve written out the past, and faced up to it,” he says.

He tells me how the schoolchildren tried to track their teacher down, but didn’t find her, and later smashed the windows in their school. “As I write these stories, I feel like these things bring out the suffering and uneasiness in my heart. They became scars. These times, the times that we grew up in . . . These things also later influenced my art, and the way I view society.”

There’s a silence and we sip our wine. “Everything I’m saying now is so heavy, isn’t it?” he says.

I notice a small altar mounted on the wall behind where Cai is sitting — an altar to Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy — and ask him about his faith. He has sought out shamans all over the world, and the studio complex we are sitting in has been carefully laid out according to the principles of feng shui. “[It’s] not like those religions where you have to do this, and have to do that. But I believe that these unseen energies, these emotions, can speak to you, can make you create art,” he tells me, saying he was raised in a faith that combined Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.

The spiritual dimension is part of what has drawn him to gunpowder, the medium for which he is best known. Cai started experimenting with gunpowder in paintings in the 1980s, and later became known for his large-scale firework-based performance art. “For my art there is a common theme most of the time, it is using the things we can see, to search for the world we cannot see,” he says. “Gunpowder as a material can be good at showing these things.”

We sample some of the lotus root pancake, and I notice that the dish beneath has an inky bottom, one of Cai’s own designs. He describes what it is like to make one of his explosive paintings: layers of gunpowder are sprinkled over the canvas through stencils and fuses are taped on to create lines. Before ignition (which I’m disappointed to learn takes place in a special pyrotechnic lab on Long Island, and not in his studio) the canvas is smothered in cardboard that’s been weighed down with bricks, to reduce the flow of oxygen and prevent it from catching fire.

“Before it explodes, you have absolutely no idea what it will look like,” he says. “It is like experiencing fate. You always think, ‘Please, give me a surprise!’ ” he adds, making the gesture of a prayer. “So sometimes, when I ignite it, I suddenly feel very reverent, like I’m not such a naughty child. In fact I often feel like an ill-behaved boy, but at the same time I feel like, all day, I’m a child receiving God’s love and care.”

'Sky Ladder' (2015)

Many of his early gunpowder works were abstract, black-and-white, their smoky textures combined with a sense of figure drawn from his training in classical Chinese painting. Indeed, a painting in that style leans against the wall behind him, although he tells me this is a recent work, made after the death of his father and his grandmother.

He has started using more colour, including coloured gunpowder, which he says is partly related to his grief. “With colour there can be more variation, more loneliness, more sadness . . . as well as lust, desire, sex. The older I get, the more I engage with these emotions, with sensuality. So what you can see here all has sex as a theme,” he says.

To our right, a giant colourful painting shows dozens of animals, which, on close inspection, are having sex in improbable inter-species combinations. His remark draws to mind his recent performance piece in Paris called “One Night Stand” that involved 50 amorous couples and a lot of fireworks. (It also prompted public complaints for inciting public orgy.)

The cook arrives with dessert — a dish of fresh cherries — and black tea. Cai mentions that there will be a small seminar in the studio that afternoon about the abstract movement, and invites me to sit in. Time has flown by and we haven’t even had a chance to talk about contemporary Chinese art yet, I point out. “Do we have to talk about that?” he laughs.

Lunch laid out in Cai Guo-Qiang's studio in New York

Suddenly his open manner becomes more guarded. “I have to be really careful when I talk about this,” he says. Eventually, he says he finds a lot of contemporary Chinese art “very commercial”, with too much focus on the record auction prices. The topic clearly makes him uncomfortable. “Talking about China’s problems, you have to be careful, if you say this and you say that, you can be perceived as an outsider.” I can’t help but notice that for someone who is so dismissive of commercial art, he has had plenty of commercial success himself (and even, as our dishes indicated, his own line of tableware).

After a few more cherries, we head downstairs for the seminar. Two studio assistants lead a long discussion of the evolution of abstract art, and I start to feel a bit like I’m back in art history class. Cai occasionally interjects with his own musings — why, he questions, did abstraction develop in the west before it did in China?

When I take my leave, Cai nods to his assistant, who reappears with cards, books and a silver marker. As Cai starts to sign them, I realise that these are farewell gifts. There’s a holograph postcard of the Sky Ladder, a scarf with an explosion design, and his most recent book, into which he draws a deft figurine on the title page. Clearly he has done this before. “Come by any time for lunch,” he tells me as we shake hands goodbye. “Next time our conversation will be a little lighter.”

Leslie Hook is an FT correspondent in San Francisco

Illustration by James Ferguson

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