Art With a Bang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s explosive new retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao features flying wolves, floating cars, and plenty of fireworks. VIEW OUR GALLERY

When it comes to making art, Cai Guo-Qiang thinks big. One of the most respected Chinese contemporary artists active today, Cai has taken the world by storm—creating breathtaking spectacles in both the East and West. His massive gunpowder drawings, dynamic fireworks displays, and installations with pierced animals and cars have been exhibited around the world and are currently on view in a survey show at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain.

In this widely popular exhibition, Cai takes over the museum—as he did when the traveling show was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and National Art Museum of China—and utilizes the famous Frank Gehry building like no one has previously done. Titled Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe, the show has changed forms at each venue and currently features drawings for and videos of the amazing fireworks displays he created for the Beijing Summer Olympics, which made plenty of believers to the awesome power of Chinese creativity.

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Cai was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, located on the southeastern coast of Fujian Province. A creative child, he participated in many forms of cultural activities. In his 20s, he acted in martial-arts films and studied painting and calligraphy—a medium that continues to influence his explosive gunpowder on paper works. In 1986 he moved to Japan and began participating in the international art scene. Since then there has been no turning back as he has had hundreds of solo shows worldwide. In 1995, Cai moved to New York, where he now lives and works.

Highlights of the Bilbao exhibition include Inopportune: Stage One, a 2004 sculptural installation of eight cars, pierced by sequenced multichannel light tubes, that hang in a central space of the museum; a gigantic, 11-panel gunpowder-on-paper drawing that captures his firework-footprints over the Olympic stadium in Beijing in another medium; several early, multipanel gunpowder drawings, which were borrowed from Japanese museums; the wreckage of an abandoned ship set atop a pile of fractured porcelain dishes; numerous videos of explosion events in major cultural capitals; and a pack of 99 perfectly replicated wolves, running head-on into a glass wall.

Inspired by ancient mythology, Taoist cosmology, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese medicine, the stars, and man's conflict on Earth, Cai Guo-Qiang constructs a conceptual style of art that is very much his own, while being accessible to all.

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Paul Laster is the editor of, a contributing editor at and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.