Chinese installation artist. Cai studied at the Shanghai Drama Institute, completing his degree in stage design in 1985. He is best known for ephemeral, large-scale explosion-works using gunpowder—a medium he began to experiment with in China and often explained as a childhood reference to witnessing skirmishes between China and Taiwan along what was known as the Fujian Front.
In the 1980s he applied gunpowder to canvas, which he then lit to create bold, charred designs. When Cai emigrated to Japan in 1986, he began to use gunpowder for environmental installations. Since the early 1990s he called these works Projects for Extraterrestrials. Cai believed that most explosions visible from space have been related to war, and that his work sends a non-violent message. A good example is The Horizon from the Pan Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14 (1994), executed off the coast of Iwaki, a small town in Japan, where Cai installed a 5000 metre trail of gunpowder in the ocean that illuminated the horizon. The work evoked the experience of living in this small fishing village, where the ocean is a central part of everyday life. Such a conceptually-charged, yet rudimentary application of gunpowder, characterizes Cai’s works created in Japan.
Coinciding with his move to New York in 1995, Cai began to create installations using other materials and more direct references to his Chinese heritage, such as traditional Chinese medicine (Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot, 1995) and fengshui (How is your Feng Shui?, 2000). These works reveal a desire to find new applications for Chinese cultural traditions outside China. For example, Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot consisted of a Chinese junk (boat) transported from the artist’s home town of Quanzhou and moored at Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin, a 17th-century merchant’s home. Visitors could board the boat for the duration of the exhibition, and in the Palazzo were invited to self-prescribe Chinese medicinal tonics for various ills, which were dispensed from a vending machine. In this work Cai referred to Marco Polo’s visits to China, suggesting that the explorer should have brought back Chinese traditional medicine, in addition to his observations of differences between Europe and 13th-century China.
Cai continued to create works using gunpowder, but they became much more ambitious in their application of pyrotechnic technology, sometimes involving collaboration with pyrotechnic companies. One such example is Light Cycle (2003), designed for New York’s Central Park. The work consisted of three parts: Signal Towers, Light Cycle and White Night, each dependent upon different applications of gunpowder through the use of microchips inside firing shells and computer-operated remote controls. In conjunction with these ephemeral works, Cai also exhibited large-scale drawings made from burning gunpowder on paper.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press