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Practicing Social Sculpture in Fukushima Kizuna,

In Fukushima Kizuna, Cai Guo-Qiang practiced social sculpture and had a dialogue with the universe.
Image: A handwritten message by Cai Guo-Qiang: “Cultivate works here, converse with the universe, and create stories of the times with the people here!” in 1993.

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in Quanzhou, Fujian, where the whole city was obsessed with the invisible world. From feng shui to Taoism, traditional Chinese medicine, and fireworks in folk celebrations, they all constituted Cai Guo-Qiang’s childhood and led him to his creative theme: to transcend the limits of material and time and connect with eternal time and infinite universe. During the first few years of living in Japan, Cai Guo-Qiang faced the pressure of being “enthusiastic about the invisible world but struggling to stand up in the visible world.” In 1988, Cai Guo-Qiang, who had just arrived in Japan, visited galleries in Ginza, Tokyo with his paintings but was repeatedly rejected. He then moved to Iwaki, Fukushima, and adopted the “surrounding the city with the countryside” approach, and thus still calls Iwaki his revolutionary base. “At that time, my slogan was: ‘Cultivate works here, converse with the universe, and create stories of the times with the people here!'” Here, he and his wife were warmly welcomed and supported by local residents, who bought Cai Guo-Qiang’s paintings for several thousand or tens of thousands of yen to support his creation. Cai Guo-Qiang said that these years were the most difficult and rewarding time of his life. Perhaps influenced by Japanese culture, he became more sensitive and pure in his exploration of materials during this period.

Image: Cai Guo-Qiang and the Iwaki team preparing for the long fuse (each 5000 meters). Photo by Kazuo Ono, provided by the Iwaki team.

In 1993, when Cai Guo-Qiang held his first solo exhibition in Japan, he planned the “Horizon Project,” which set up a 5000-meter-long fuse along the coastline to create a silhouette of the earth with the erupting fire. The people of Iwaki jointly purchased the fuse for 1000 yen per meter and assisted the artist in creating the work. On the night of the fireworks, they spontaneously turned off the lights to ensure the best effect of the work. In 1995, Cai Guo-Qiang moved to New York. His friends in Iwaki regularly published a newsletter called “Cai Communication” to share Cai Guo-Qiang’s overseas activities with local residents. When he returned to Shikura Coast to ignite “Days with Cherry Blossoms,” the artist mentioned: “For more than 30 years, I have set sail with my friends from Iwaki from a small fishing port and headed towards the world. From the United States, Canada, France, to Spain, Denmark, and so on, we have grown together in each cooperation, and our hair has gradually turned white, and our hands and feet have gradually become less agile. Fortunately, we have been each other’s ‘noble person’ throughout our lives, and our story is still continuing…”

Under the cherry blossoms, the Bancho Corridor Museum of Art was created by the design and creativity of Cai Guo-Qiang and the construction of the Bancho people. In March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima, Japan, causing radiation leaks from a nuclear power plant. Cai Guo-Qiang immediately auctioned off his artwork at the Beijing Poly Auction and donated all the proceeds to his friends in Bancho. The Bancho people suggested using the donation to start the “Ten Thousand Cherry Trees Planting Project” to compensate for the regret and guilt of their hometown’s nuclear crisis for future generations. In addition, the nuclear leak destroyed all the trees in the Bancho mountains, making it impossible to use them for construction. Therefore, the artist invited local residents to use the wood salvaged from the Bancho area to build the “Bancho Corridor Museum of Art” in the cherry blossom forest, which was completed in 2013. After Cai Guo-Qiang became an internationally renowned artist, he created an installation artwork called “Reflection – A Gift from Bancho” using a wooden boat salvaged from Bancho and porcelain tiles from Quanzhou. This artwork visually commemorates his deep friendship with the people of Bancho, responds to the social sculpture concept advocated by Joseph Beuys, and suggests the possibility of communication beyond political boundaries and the principles of neoliberalism. In the small exhibition space connected to the main exhibition hall, this friendship is reviewed and commemorated in detail.

Looking at History and the Future from the “Primitive Fireball”

“Big Footprints: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 6,” 1991. Gunpowder, ink, paper, wooden screen. 200 x 640 cm. Photo by Gu Jianheng, provided by Cai Studio.
In 1991, Cai Guo-Qiang held a solo exhibition titled “Primitive Fireball – Project for Projects” at the P3 Art and Environment Research Institute in Tokyo, where he displayed seven gunpowder screen paintings. These screens were like ancient scrolls, combining text and images, and the geometric imprints left by the gunpowder resembled extraterrestrial bases. They recorded Cai’s notes on the history and material culture of gunpowder, as well as his various visions of the universe. He believed that the primitive fireball represented the chaotic state before the Big Bang and corresponded to the cosmology of “Before the universe was born, there was something in the chaos” in the Tao Te Ching.

In addition to the four screens exhibited thirty years ago, this exhibition also included three new works by the artist in recent years, all of which were about 2 meters high and 6 meters long. Among them, “Moving the Berlin Wall One Kilometer: Berlin Sightseeing Plan,” created this year, continued his recent attempts to explode fireworks on glass. The work still combined text and images, and he called on the Berlin government to hire 20 workers divided into two teams. One team would build a one-kilometer wall on the site of the Berlin Wall, and the other team would then demolish it, repeating this process like a “vehicle that travels through time and space, connecting the past, present, and future.”

In the photo, Cai Guo-Qiang is seen at the creation site of “Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9” in 1991.
In 1991, Cai Guo-Qiang created “Project for Extraterrestrials No. 7: Berlin Wall” which focused on the Berlin Wall. He imitated the tone of an extraterrestrial and asked, “Does the reconstruction of the Berlin Wall by humans expose their true nature… When humans come to develop outer space, will they continue to build walls here?” This inquiry, like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” reveals the violence towards others and the exploitation of the environment that is prevalent and endless in human history from a perspective of de-territorialization. In fact, if one carefully examines the text on each screen, it is not difficult to find that this narrative runs through the entire series. The 1991 work “Project for Extraterrestrials No. 8: Rekindling the Fire of the Beacon Tower for Humans” reviewed the historical function of the beacon tower in transmitting signals of war through fireworks. “Project for Extraterrestrials No. 6: Footprints of History for Humans” planned to be carried out on the border between two countries, allowing unconstrained extraterrestrials to leave a trail of footprints freely at both ends of the boundary. This idea was later realized at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (although the footprints in Beijing had to carefully follow the city’s central axis, which almost subverted its original intention). “Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9: Fetus Movement II for Extraterrestrials” used gunpowder to shape national borders or high walls. At first glance, the series appears to be abstract ink paintings with a touch of childlike whimsy and poetry, but it also vaguely conveys the anxiety and chaos of real society. The material properties of gunpowder and the attributes of civilization overlap and contradict each other in these works: they both take us to higher and farther places, but the places they pass through are often in ruins.

In “Sakura: In the Daytime with Sunshine and in the Night with Fireworks,” a work created in 2023, Cai Guo-Qiang used fireworks to create a spectacle and violence. The work is a “scroll of cherry blossoms,” which is a beautiful and poetic image.
Days of Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom: A Spectacular Fireworks Display by Cai Guo-Qiang

Days before the opening of his solo exhibition at the New Art Museum, artist Cai Guo-Qiang presented a fireworks display titled “Days of Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom” on the coastline of Iwaki City. The display featured white chrysanthemums, waves, a monument, and a grand finale of cherry blossoms bursting in the sky. The display was meant to commemorate the victims of the earthquake, soothe the wounds of the town, and awaken hope for the future.

For the artist, the fireworks forming the cherry blossoms in the sky and the cherry blossoms planted as part of the “Ten Thousand Cherry Trees” project over the years will also form the city of Iwaki as seen by extraterrestrial beings. The ignition point snaked along the coastline for hundreds of meters, and with each explosion, the audience could not predict where the fireworks would rise from or whether they would be a simultaneous burst or a chain reaction like dominoes.

At the beginning of the explosion, the fireworks rose vertically, then burst open with a loud bang, presenting a feathery bomb-like texture with sparkling dots. They then formed a parabolic shape as they descended, turning into smoke clouds, like the drooping branches of cherry blossoms. Unlike nighttime fireworks displays that focus on brightness and quickly dissipate into the night sky, daytime fireworks leave behind lingering smoke clouds. After each launch, the smoke clouds moved from the coastline towards the town, slowly disintegrating and gradually losing their color and spectacle, spreading over the small hills above the town like a reasonable dark cloud or a colorful cloud under the setting sun.
Unrealized Rendering of “Black Flower Crown”: 225 drones carrying fireworks rise ceremoniously into the air, forming a flower crown with a diameter of 80 meters and a height of 120 meters at the top. Within 5 seconds, black fireworks bloom clockwise one after another, and then shoot up again… The appearance of the black flower crown twice symbolizes mourning and remembrance for the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Cai Guo-Qiang’s works, large-scale fireworks performances and small-scale flat creations have always been equally important, and their expression cores are also similar. In fact, the overwhelming sense of presence during the fireworks display provides an important supplement to the flat works in the art gallery. If the flat works record the traces of fireworks, the live performance is the ancient civilization flourishing before the disaster, reminding people of the complete chain from creation to destruction and then to re-creation in the artist’s works. Theodore Adorno once commented on the significance of materials for art, pointing out that “history accumulates in them (such as form and material), while spirit permeates them. They do not contain affirmative rules, but their content clearly outlines the outline of the problem. Artistic imagination awakens these accumulated elements by realizing the inherent problems of the material.” Cai Guo-Qiang’s daytime fireworks not only emphasizes the process, but also discusses the ontology around the material itself in a posture closer to the original function of fireworks. It is more directly connected with the material history of fireworks and gunpowder, achieving the tension between the beauty of spectacle and the violence of destruction contained in the performance.

Cai Guo-Qiang once said in the documentary “Sky Ladder”: “Art is my time and space tunnel to the universe.” “The one who wanders is destroyed, and the one who is far away is distant” (Gu Tongbai, “Zhuangzi Annotation and Commentary”), and gunpowder, which may indeed have the talent to wander in time and space without limits, has a destructive nature. In the new art museum, this time and space tunnel not only leads to physically distant countries and stars, but also reverses time to the embarrassment and warmth of arriving in Japan 30 years ago, and the childhood fantasies. It also shuttles between the visible and the invisible, the impermanent reality and the multiple possibilities of the future. And all of these connections, as indicated by the exhibition title, start from the “primordial fireball” and the chain reaction from a single material language and childish imagination of the sky.