hat about Cai Guoqiang?” a woman in the audience at a recent Beijing interaction with the Chinese artist asked him.
Cai, 58, answered: “Cai Guoqiang is a little boy who never grows up, who tries to scare others with firecrackers, but ends up scaring himself.”
The dialogue was in reference to Cai’s often “What about it?” barbs at contemporary Chinese art, for what he calls the lack of innovation.
Cai is well-known for his fireworks, quite literally. He used gunpowder to paint in his Projects for Extraterrestrials series (1989-2002) andtomake social and political statements.
In 2008, his “fireworks of giant feet” at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics thrilled many. A few years later, after his fireworks’ performance in Paris, some 50 couples volunteered to engage in intimate scenes on the banks of the Seine. In 2014, his work The Ninth Wave captured the Shanghai sky.
Cai’s gunpowder drawing Homeland sold for 15 million yuan ($2.38 million) at a Christie’s auction in Shanghai in 2013.
While the Chinese art market has boomed since 2006, there is still a lot that artists can do in terms of their contributions to the art world, he says. Cai has similar expectations from the country’s film and fashion industries.
“When Westerners talk about Chinese contemporary art, they automatically lower their standards,” he says.
Cai was in Beijing in April to talk about the exhibition he has organized for the Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq in Doha— What About the Art?: Contemporary Art from China. The exhibition, running through July 16, examines ideas in Chinese modern art and whether they influence the global scene.
In recent years, many artistic works from China have set records at auctions and the art market in China is doing well, he says.
“But take away the ‘China angle’ from such works and what do you get about the art itself? What about the innovation?”
To find the answers, Cai and his team chose 14Chinese artists and one artist-collaborative duo from more than 200 through a three-year process.
The conversations with individual artists, together with Cai’s discussions with curators and scholars from home and abroad, are part of a 500-page book by the same name as the Doha exhibition title.
What About the Art?: Contemporary Art from China was published by Normal University March.
“Art is not only about content alone, it is also about expression. If you see Chinese art today, you can barely tell which is whose work because the works tend to resemble one another,” he says of what he describes as the lack of individual style.
“Even today, we are still learning from theWest to create modern art, but we haven’t learned to respect individualism in art.”
Group exhibitions of Chinese art in recent years have presented different artistic forms: sculptures, painting, performance art and films, but that doesn’t mean diversification of attitudes toward art or unique presentation skills in works, he says.
“Maybe works that talk about an artist’s sexual experiences or pain after a break-up offer individual styles.” Guangxi Press in
In the book, Cai introduced artist Li Liao, who used installation art to express his state of mind after his wife’s affair came to light. Li’s work is called Scorpio, his zodiac sign.
“Because people with this sun sign are good at revenge,” Li is quoted as telling Cai in the book.
In the foreword, Cai writes: “Today, there is a lack of formalism in Chinese art. Artists often worry that too much emphasis on form will overwhelm the content. But form itself can be the content, from which theories, attitudes and even content and meanings can be developed.”
He gives an example of Chinese calligraphy to show that artists in ancient times paid great attention to form.
“Many calligraphers started from imitation and then developed theirownstyles,” he says.
Another problem with contemporary Chinese art is that artists talk more about methods rather than methodology, the method of methods, the most fundamental question in art, Cai says.
“The system of feng shui has a very clear methodology and systematic solutions to different situations, such as the construction of imperial mausoleums. It instructs people to investigate the shape and layout of the mountains to decide the best location for a coffin,” he writes in the book.
He applauds an artist’s free spirit, warning that artists should avoid becoming “zoo creatures”, and this might be why he chose to start the book with farmer-turned-artist Hu Zhijun, who became interested in sculpture in 2013 at the age of 61.
“Hu’s works, if judged by the standards of anatomy and structure, are full of flaws, but they have the original power of art,” Cai writes of the sculptor’s ideas.
Contact the writer at yangyangs@ chinadaily.com.cn
Cai Guo-qiang says a “China angle” is not enough to elevate the nation’s contemporary art.
Cai’s gunpowder painting DayandNight makes a dramatic statement at a recent show in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.
Cai’s new book offers an insightful look at the country’s contemporary art scene.