At Noon on a Japanese Beach, Cai Guo-Qiang Stages a ‘Solemn and Monumental’ Fireworks Tribute to the 2011 Earthquake Victims

At some point in the future, when academics are studying how artists at the height of their profession operated in the early 21st century, Cai Guo-Qiang will make an ideal case study.

Now 65, Cai has been using his signature materials, gunpowder and fireworks, for more than three decades, arraying and igniting them in ingenious ways to create sprawling performances and paintings that awe and beguile. His efforts have graced not only many of the world’s most august art spaces—the Guggenheim in New York in 2008, the Palace Museum in Beijing in 2020, and the National Art Center in Tokyo this summer—but also some of the era’s most important political pageants, perhaps most notably the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

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Realizing his elaborate displays is not aways simple. Cai’s most dramatic events require formidable financial resources, negotiations with various authorities, and patience, but he seems well-suited to such matters. In the moving, intimate 2016 documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, he is indefatigable as he navigates setbacks. One revealing moment comes as he conceives a fireworks display for the 2014 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Beijing and meets with Communist Party officials—all men—who have been nixing elements of his plan. Cai, who was born in Quanzhou, China, and has been based in New York since 1995, extolls the advances that have been made in environmentally friendly fireworks, and one the men tells him, between drags of a cigarette: “The innovation is great, but as I mentioned, security and stability are equally important.”

“I’m telling you, the government is here to help you,” the man goes on, explaining that “you have to figure out something creative with all these chains on you.” Off-camera, we hear Cai bemoan, “Why am I still here?” But he sorted it out, and proceeded to light up the night sky above international dignitaries. Even in a grainy clip from Chinese TV, it is tantalizing. The bureaucrats must have been reasonably satisfied, too, since Cai was tapped to do fireworks for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Portrait of Cai Guo-Qiang in front of neon sculpture.
Cai Guo-Qiang at the National Art Center, Tokyo, 2023.
Photo Kenryou Gu/courtesy Cai Studio

This year, Cai’s major patron has been the luxury brand Saint Laurent. The label (take note, future scholars) has co-organized his Tokyo survey, “Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos—From Primeval Fireball Onward,” and last month, its creative director, Anthony Vaccarello, commissioned a fireworks display on Japan’s east coast, along Yotsukura Beach, in the city of Iwaki, about three hours by car north of Tokyo.

The fireworks took place in broad daylight, at noon, on a Wednesday. “Nighttime fireworks rely on light for their effects; their brilliant bursts will return to darkness,” Cai said in an email interview. “Daytime fireworks rely on smoke to take shape; although there is also a poetic purpose, they are superimposed on social realities and nature.” In his view, “daytime fireworks are closer to paintings.”

Saint Laurent produced a crisp three-and-a-half-minute video of the 30-minute display, which Cai titled When the Sky Blooms with Sakura. One after another, a series of irresistible events transpire via some 40,000 fireworks shells, vaguely suggesting botanical delights: thin white columns rocket upward and then burst into countless lines, strange black waves streak skyward at a diagonal, and finally the cherry blossoms promised in its title come into existence, a glorious, gigantic expanse of pink as pure, fluffy, and delicate as cotton candy. Thanks to high-res drone footage, the video is a richly immersive experience, and it has racked up a cool 3.4 million views over the past four weeks.

A detail of streaks of black and gray fireworks rising into the day sky.
Cai Guo-Qiang, When the Sky Blooms with Sakura, 2023, performance view, at Yotsukura Beach in Iwaki City.
Commissioned by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent

The piece and the retrospective represent a kind of homecoming for Cai, who moved to Japan in 1986 and lived there for the next nine years, as he honed the practice that would make him an international superstar. In 1993, he took up residence in Iwaki to prepare for a solo show at the Iwaki City Museum of Art, and on March 7, 1994, he staged an astonishing gunpowder performance along the same coast he used last month. The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14 (no one does titles quite like Cai) involved gunpowder fuses measuring 5 kilometers long (about 3.1 miles); lit in darkness, they traced the curve of the earth.

While residing in Iwaki in the mid-’90s, Cai became close with many in the community. Residents raised funds for the gunpowder fuses, and “they even initiated a collective action of turning off lights in every household during the event, to make the earth’s outline more beautiful for the universe to witness,” Cai told me. They have helped him realize other pieces since then, and “over the years, we witnessed each other’s hair becoming grey and our movements less nimble,” he added. “This long-lasting friendship, conveyed through art, has transcended the political and historical differences between nations.”

View of a large-scale artwork that is displayed like a room divider and has the remains of ash and burns from fireworks.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9, 1992, installation view, at National Art Center, Tokyo, 2023.
Photo Mengjia Zhao/Courtesy Cai Studio

In the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, “many residents—including my friends from Iwaki—were displaced from their homes,” Cai said. He auctioned artworks to raise funds for rebuilding, which people instead decided to use for an initiative to plant 10,000 cherry blossom trees. “The project envisions that in the future, the land once contaminated by the nuclear plant incident will appear like a pink ocean of cherry blossoms when viewed from afar,” Cai said.

Through the fireworks display, Cai was also trying to reckon with the tragedy. Some of his shows have been fantastically over-the-top, bringing to mind the art critic (and pyromaniac) Peter Schjeldahl’s belief “that proper fireworks should be all the good parts of war and none of the bad parts.” But in Iwaki last month, he wanted to make something “more simple, solemn, and monumental, evoking the feeling of Zen,” he said. His aim was “to commemorate the victims and pay tribute to the awe-inspiring power of nature, while drawing upon Eastern philosophy, where rebirth is attained through transcending trauma, to convey a theme of hope.”

A highly saturated photograph showing pink fireworks on water.
Cai Guo-Qiang, When the Sky Blooms with Sakura, 2023, performance view, at Yotsukura Beach in Iwaki City.
Commissioned by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent

Creating a memorial out of materials that are designed for spectacles is a complicated and thorny notion. But at least judging by the documentation, Cai pulled it off. The forms that he conjured are achingly beautiful, but they are also fragile and fleeting. Born of humble ingredients, they begin to vanish just as they coalesce, brushed away by the wind.

Despite the apparent precision of his art, Cai is never exactly sure how his chosen tools will behave. “The charisma of gunpowder lies in its uncontrollability and spontaneity,” he told me. Out on the beach, some of what he had envisioned ended up not taking place. Two acts that were to be staged by more than 400 drones outfitted with firework shells could not be realized because of issues communicating with them. “It is true that I was upset by the setback,” Cai said, “but I was also relieved, because I am still young and still around!” (That Cai, midway through his 60s, can still see himself as young probably explains some of his success.)

Cai was also feeling thankful. He said that staging the Tokyo exhibition (which runs through August 21) has been a way “to express my gratitude. My first few years in Japan were both extraordinarily difficult and immensely rewarding.” They have stuck with him. “I often feel that I am an adored child of the God,” he said at one point. “I grew up under the support of the whole world, while so many hardworking artists still end up in poverty. But where is the God? It has been important people and opportunities that have helped me and shaped me into who I am.”

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