NEW YORK — What feels like a blitz is in fact the hush before a blast. As installation of the mid-career retrospective "Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe" hurtles to completion in preparation for its opening today at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the artist's name is everywhere. A child of Mao's Cultural Revolution, Mr. Cai was born in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, in 1957. He has lived in Japan and now maintains a Manhattan studio in the East Village. Commentators call him peripatetic, transnational. There are talents that issue their own passport.
Last week, sculptors at the Guggenheim were busy modeling clay over wire armatures for an ensemble of life-size Soviet-realist-style figures, but no paying customer was being turned away. In one gallery, the public is invited to paddle down a man-made river, contemplating suspended totems, a bird cage, shower curtains emblazoned with acupuncture charts, and a burlap sack full of live snakes. Another gallery is given over to a fishing boat bristling with some 3,000 arrows, illustrating a parable about turning hostile forces to one's advantage. Flung along the corkscrew ramp of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, amazingly lifelike stuffed tigers hang frozen in poses of cataclysmic dynamism, likewise bristling with arrows -- more so than any St. Sebastian. Most spectacular of all: nine white Chevy Metros, cascading through the central vortex, pierced with blinking light tubes that simulate -- but in candy colors -- the flares of exploding car bombs.
What will happen when the doors open officially? No matter what hordes overrun the place their numbers won't touch those for Mr. Cai's next act: the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, which will be televised to billions. By that standard, the New York lollapalooza seems a prelude to the Big Bang no one can stop -- and lulls like these are moments Mr. Cai has a special fondness for, despite his reputation for those stupendous "explosion events" the uninitiated are all too apt to call "fireworks," a designation he is said to hate.
As a small army proceeded to labor in the Guggenheim's public spaces, Mr. Cai took an hour off for conversation in a bright upstairs office. Though he settled in New York in 1995, he speaks through an interpreter, his project manager Lesley Ma, venturing into English for the occasional phrase or two. But he seems to understand a good deal more.
"I feel strange," Mr. Cai began, affable and at ease, tall and lanky of stature, with a military haircut that signally fails to make him look severe. "I live in Beijing a lot now, with few chances to speak English. But every time I come back to New York, English gets easier."
So what's the problem with the word "fireworks"? "It's hard not to notice the bright side of the moon," Mr. Cai says. "I like to show the dark side. Often, when I see fireworks, I'm not paying attention to the beautiful colors and shapes at all, but to what's left when the fireworks are over: the smoke, the ash, the falling debris. Those things intrigue me. The last remnants of matter. The things that connect to human destiny, to a greater sense of cause and effect. If I were really interested in fireworks, I could just be a professional pyrotechnician. A lot of people who are pyrotechnicians hang out with me and like to see what I'm doing." Towers and dragons and rings of fire in midair, for example, or black rainbows, fired off by day.
"I Want to Believe" bills itself as the most comprehensive survey of Mr. Cai's work to date. In August, the show is expected to travel to Beijing for the Olympics and next spring to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. But at some level, any retrospective of Mr. Cai's work is a chimera. For one thing, he conceives his pieces, virtually without exception, as site-specific. For another, so many of them, though planned like military strikes and pulled off with the help of hundreds of volunteers, are gone, literally, in a flash. To say nothing of the philosophical incongruities. Mr. Cai, after all, is the originator of a social project called "Everything Is Museum," under which art, often of very humble material pretensions, is coaxed into existence in the remotest, least worldly locations. It's his "small rebellion against the current generic MoMAs and MoCAs," however seductive and useful such institutions may be.
"Yes," Mr. Cai agrees, "it has been a challenge to make sense out of art pulled from its context." It's easier when the work is self-contained and more or less portable, such as another excavated fishing boat, this one filled with (mostly) shattered white porcelain statuettes of Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of mercy. Mr. Cai's signature gunpowder drawings make sense in the gallery context, too. The artist prepares the designs on paper, laying out fuzes and scattering the mixed sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter with a graceful hand. Depending on the intended effect, other elements -- rocks, bricks, cardboard, stencils, glassine -- may come into play. (On a video at the Guggenheim, he is seen using tree branches.) Then Mr. Cai -- never a helper -- lights the fuze, releasing the pent-up energies of elements that follow their own laws. Sparks and flame race across the paper, scorching and singeing and sometimes burning holes before the fires are stamped out. "A lot of my work captures a quality of great heat," he says. "Sometimes it's the gunpowder. Sometimes it's the subject matter. Sometimes it's the physical impact."
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Critics galore have focused on Mr. Cai's implicit (and sometimes explicit) social and political content -- terrorism, displacement, ambivalence about the past -- but too often, that perspective reduces his works to propaganda. A naïve viewer may be more struck by their grace, luminous but grave with mystery. Like ideograms, they encapsulate in their stillness conflicting forces that the right spark of imagination will set ablaze.
"I call that stillness 'blank,'" Mr. Cai says. "That's the essence. Even if what you see visually is radiating energy, there's a stillness at the core." Once and only once, Mr. Cai placed himself at the center of one of his explosion events, which on film looks like an incident on a battlefield. Did he feel the stillness then? "Yes, I did, when I pressed the button. In the instant between pressing the button and the explosion, I could feel the energy gathering. It excites me to connect the energy and the stillness. To me, that's the essence of poetry."
Would that dialectic link back to Mr. Cai's boyhood during the Cultural Revolution, when the twin spirits of rebellion and repression roamed the Middle Kingdom, impossible to tell apart? "I experienced the repression mostly as a teenager, when what I wanted was more freedom. As a child, rebelling against teachers, producing fliers -- all that was like a game, a sort of performance art. I didn't have to go to school! So I felt very free."
Does Mr. Cai worry that at the Olympics, spectators will see only the fireworks and not the traces? "I'm very worried," Mr. Cai says, "but that's also the great attraction. That's why I've been spending so much time in Beijing: to figure out how to give these ephemeral events something deeper. That's the challenge."
His conversation partner, for his part, worries that for all the skills of the interpreter, he may have understood Mr. Cai's thoughts very, very imperfectly. "Language is insufficient in communication," Mr. Cai says with a big, broad smile. "Rely on art! That's more real -- and more trustworthy."