How to be a legendary artist like Cai Guo-Qiang?

Cai Guo-Qiang, Chinese contemporary artist who is living and working in New York. The documentary “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” is presenting Cai’s background, thoughts, attitude, influence, and most importantly, his dream. I was thinking a lot while I was watching it. There are many artists all around the world. What exactly makes this man a legendary artist? As an unknown artist, what inspired me and what should I do in my artistic path?

Keep pursuing a dream

Keep pursuing a dream
“Sky Ladder” at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian

Yes yes, everyone knows it. Everyone has a dream, but not everyone has the courage to pursue it, especially when he or she tries to pursue but fails. Cai is holding a dream that is to make a “Sky Ladder” through the sky, in order to communicate with the outer space. Weird, right? However, that is his dream, and he chose to believe what he believed. This is the attitude which artists should have. Even though he had been failing several times at that dream project, he always says, ‘there is no success or failure in art”.

Be influenced by background, family, and books

Be influenced by background, family, and books - artwork of Cai's father
Calligraphy by Cai’s father

Cai grew up in QuanZhou, FuJian. The city where the people are long believers of Feng Shui. That is the reason why Cai always believe in the unseen world, and he believes in unseen power. He claims that he wants to talk with the aliens in outer space when he works on the “Sky Ladder” project. The city’s culture has been influencing him enormously while he is exploring in the art field.

As many well-known artists, Cai went into the art field because he was deeply influenced by his family—especifically by his father, who was also a well-known artist in his hometown. His father spent all of his earnings on buying books because he believed that books can expand one’s horizon and should be the fortune of the life. Unfortunately, most of those books were burned in the period of ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’.

Concern about social problems

 Cai guo qiang, Installation view of Silent Ink
Installation view of “Silent Ink”

Many artworks of Cai depict the severe problems that the society has. For instance, the environmental problems that China encounters. He expresses them in artsy ways with his care and integrity. The project “Silent Ink” completely reflects the effects of pollution in certain rivers of China.

Find new materials

Find new materials for creation - Gunpowder artwork
Gunpowder artwork

Using gunpowder was inspired by the traditional culture in his hometown. Gunpowder art is similar to traditional calligraphy, which is unintentional. Some calligraphers just follow their instincts to finish the artwork. Cai uses gunpowder to create new artworks, from which he enjoy listening to the sound of the process. It helps him to release his emotions. “The energy could be damaged.” He claimed in the documentary. He loved to paint and now he loves to disrupt what he used to do by using gunpowder.

Be in the right time and be open-minded

Be in the right time and be open-minded. Cai with his fellow artists
Cai with his fellow artists

Cai had been learning stage design in ShangHai in the post-Mao period. The peers of Cai experimented different art styles in that time. Cai also wondered why he could not surpass Picasso when his peers said, “Although you are hardworking, it is impossible for you to surpass Picasso.”

Think outside the box

Cai making art in Japan
Cai making art in Japan

In Japan, Cai mentioned that he could do pure art there. He is greatly obsessed with art because art is the important path for him to express himself and speak out his emotions. Japanese traditional art and the pure materials had tremendous effects on Cai. Also, He had been thinking about breaking the barrier which separated Western art and Eastern art and mixing them into a new kind of art.

Move to the United States

Cai in the United States
Cai in the United States

From the late 1990s to early 2000s, it was the time that many Chinese artists were emerging. Cai and his family moved to the U.S in 1995. His device artworks, explosion events, and firework shows caught the eyes of the people in The States. It was a big moment of Cai.

Bitterly learn from politics

Cai meets with Beijing Communist Party Officials to discuss his plans for the APEC event
Cai meets with Beijing Communist Party Officials to discuss his plans for the APEC event

In the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, he created a spectacular firework show in the ceremony even though others had doubts about him working with the Chinese government. Then in APEC 2014, he agreed to work with the Chinese government again. However, almost all of his creative work was objected by some Chinese governors. In that project, he was always compromised with requests from the government. He could not completely express what he want to say in his mind. He was totally frustrated by that project and having doubts about this cooperation. He was just a man who set a spectacular firework show rather than an artist.

Remember original intention

Unknown artist considered for potential collaboration with Cai
Unknown artist considered for potential collaboration with Cai

Every artist should not forget their original intention, even though they are getting more and more famous. Cai tried to collaborate with some ordinary artists in order to not forget about his original intention. In this documentary, the interviewer asked, “why did he want to cooperate with an untrained artist.” For me, the word “untrained” was used inappropriately. Everyone could be an artist. The artist who isn’t well-known or did not go to art school doesn’t mean he is “untrained”.

Get family support

Supported by his family - Cai with his wife, Honghong
Cai with his wife, Honghong

Cai’s grandmother who turned 100 years old believed Cai would be the greatest artist since he was little. Sky ladder is his dream which he wanted to dedicate to his grandma. He keeps experimenting “Sky Ladder”. No matter how hard it is, how much money he spends, how tough he needs to deal with the government. He keeps trying. For his grandmother’s and his family’s sakes, he successfully launched the “Sky Ladder” on the small island next to his hometown in October 2016. He and his family had tears of joy. Cai’s grandmother passed away one month after seeing the successful project. Cai achieved his dream. At the same time, his grandmother also achieved her dream which was seeing her grandson achieving an impossible mission.

Get freedom

Cai on the street, New York
Cai on the street, New York

Art needs freedom. Nowadays in China, there still are many limitations on art creations, even Cai had to compromise at politics’ requests. That is why most of the Chinese artists couldn’t get good developments and opportunities in China.

All in all, how to be a legendary artist? First and foremost, work crazy hard on what you really love. Then, leave it to “the right time, the right place and the right person”. Oh! Don’t forget freedom.

Images and trailer via Netflix

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