> Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball OnwardThe National Art Center, Tokyo 2023. 6.29 – 2023. 8.21

Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward
The National Art Center, Tokyo
2023. 6.29 – 2023. 8.21

Written by Chiaki Sakaguchi|2023.8.18

When the Sky Blooms with Sakura Photo by Kenryou Gu, courtesy Cai Studio


The nearly nine years that Cai Guo-Qiang spent in Japan from the end of 1986 were a critical period in his growth as an artist. Experimenting with gunpowder late at night in the kitchen of his Itabashi apartment, he worked on a project of cosmic scale involving countless hands connecting a long fuse. It was during this time that the foundation was laid for Cai’s dynamic mindset and the use of gunpowder in his artistic practice.

Almost 30 years later, June 2023 saw the National Art Center, Tokyo open a solo exhibition entitled Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―FromPrimeval Fireball Onward. Prior to the exhibition, Cai presented one of his signature explosion projects, the daytime fireworks When the Sky Blooms with Sakura, at Yotsukura Beach in the City of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

Yotsukura Beach was the very site where Cai in 1994 laid out a 5,000-meter-long fuse in the ocean at night, drawing the contours of the Earth on the horizon with flashes from the explosions, with his The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14. Local residents purchased a length of fuse for ¥1,000 per meter, and on the evening of the event voluntarily turned off their lights to cooperate with the artist. Cai and his friends in Iwaki stayed in touch, and when the city was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Cai sold his works at an auction and donated the proceeds to Iwaki. His friends, who themselves had experienced the disaster, surprised him by committing to reviving their hard-hit city by planting the finest grove of cherry blossom trees in all of Japan. The Project to Plant Ten Thousand Cherry Blossom Trees, which in fact sought to plant 99,000 of these trees, was followed by the establishment of the Snake Museum of Contemporary Art, which extends to the top of a mountain covered with cherry blossoms and is directed by Cai. At the opening ceremony of the daytime fireworks display, Cai spoke at length about his connection with the city, and it was as if the energy needed to launch the fireworks on this day was generated by the power of friendship.


When the Sky Blooms with Sakura  Photo by Masatoshi Tatsumi, courtesy Cai Studio

When the Sky Blooms with Sakura  Photo by Daxin Wu, courtesy Cai Studio

When the Sky Blooms with Sakura  Photo by Daxin Wu, courtesy Cai Studio


The wind was blowing gently from the sea toward the city. Unlike with nighttime fireworks displays that flash across the evening sky, the highlight of these daytime fireworks was the smoke formations created by the explosions. The excitement of the spectacle of the explosion, with sound and the instantaneous rise of the fireworks, was time and again followed by the lingering feeling of watching the smoke slowly pass overhead, disintegrating into myriad shapes. In the climax, the audience was treated to a display of fireworks representing cherry blossoms in full bloom, dedicated to the scenery of the future. As if touched by Hanasaka Jiisan, the old man who in the eponymous folk tale makes withered trees blossom, 99,000 cherry trees in full bloom appeared in an instant, with magical pink clouds covering the Iwaki sky for a moment.

To the north of Yotsukura Beach is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and the 40,000 fireworks exploded as if expressing the feelings of anger, repose, and hope for the future held by this place tainted by the catastrophic explosion 12 years ago.


Drawing for Footprints of History Photo by Kenryou Gu, courtesy Cai Studio


Meanwhile, Cai Guo-Qiang’s solo exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo, titled Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward, traces Cai’s creative journey from his artistic Big Bang, which occurred some 30 years ago in Japan, to the present. All the partition walls of the exhibition galleries were removed to create a spacious venue capable of displaying Cai’s universe of thought and the development of his methodology. Four meters high and 33 meters wide, the super-sized Drawing for Footprints of History is a gunpowder painting for the explosion project that graced the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the same idea was already visible in Bigfoot’s Footprints: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 6 in the 1990s, and it is clear that Cai had tried to express it several times since then. There had been many failures on the path to bringing the project to fruition, but this also suggests the appeal of Cai’s open-mindedness—an attitude that says “Failure equals possibility.” In the end, people often remember failures better than successes.


Installation view Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

Installation view Photo by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio 

Encounter with the Unknown  Photo by Mengjia Zhao, courtesy Cai Studio 


In the kinetic light installation Encounter with the Unknown, which is as lively as a nighttime market, the person sitting on a chair in traditional Chinese clothing among the neon faces of Einstein and aliens is a Chinese inventor who died trying to go to space in a chair powered by rocket fireworks. Even if they fail, the passion and legends of those who pursue their dreams stay with us. A crude documentary image showing the extension of the Great Wall of China by 10,000 meters in the Gobi Desert was combined with depictions of fanciful and happy people who were moved by Cai’s vision and, before knowing, were stringing a fuse together in pursuit of a shared dream.


Boy Cai Photo by Kenryou Gu, courtesy Cai Studio


While demonstrating Cai’s gratitude to Japan, the two projects also marked a homecoming to reconnect with his youth, when infinite possibilities were open to him, and to provide the inspiration needed to embark on a new adventure. They allowed audiences a vivid experience of Cai Guo-Qiang’s humanity, one beyond a purely artistic statement, and suggested the artist’s awareness of the time he has left. The boy flying a kite in the virtual space is Cai himself. How refreshing is his endless desire for such a free field, where the spirit can play in a space beyond the physical body.


Translated by Ilmari Saarinen


Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward

Period: 2023. June 29 – 2023. August 21
Venue: The National Art Center, Tokyo Special Exhibition Gallery 1E
Organized by The National Art Center, Tokyo; SAINT LAURENT

Cai Guo-Qiang When the Sky Blooms with Sakura
Date: 2023. June 26, 12:00 PM
Venue: Yotsukura Beach in Iwaki City, Fukushima
Organized by the Iwaki Executive Committee of When the Sky Blooms with Sakura
Commissioned by SAINT LAURENT


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坂口千秋 Chiaki Sakaguchi

Art writer and editor. She also works as an art coordinator in many exhibitions and projects. The editorial staff of RealTokyo.