Chinese multimedia artist, born in Guanzhou City. Unlike some contemporaries such as Xu Bing, he escaped the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, about which he now expresses diplomatically ambivalent attitudes. He began his career as an artist in Japan, having obtained a visa to study stage design, and since 1995 he has had a studio in New York. His trademark as an artist is the spectacular use of gunpowder. Cai relates this to his experience as a child of seeing the air attacks on each side during the Taiwan Straits war. The Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Metres (1993) took place at the west end of the Great Wall and was watched by 50,000 local people. Cai has also made drawings and events using gunpowder explosions. As with some other contemporary Chinese artists, his work is often politically ambiguous. The most significant example of this ambivalence was the work he presented at the 1999 Venice Biennale. This was a recreation of the once famous Socialist Realist sculpture The Rent Collector's Courtyard made by a team of sculptors about 1965, which portrayed in life-size figures the alleged iniquities visited on the peasant in pre-revolutionary days. Cai brought over traditionally trained Chinese sculptors to reconstruct it as exactly as possible. Those who saw it recall its impact as ‘fascinating’, but in the photographs documenting the event it looks forlorn and dwarfed by the grand space of the Arsenale. He also draws on earlier aspects of Chinese history and myth. Borrowing your Enemy's Arrows (1998) is an old hulk of a boat bristling with about 3,000 arrows. This relates to an old tale of a general who used an army of dummy soldiers to draw the enemy's fire and so replenish his own armoury. For his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2008 entitled I Want to Believe, Cai suspended a number of cars from the top of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous building. These sprouted sprays of coloured lights suggesting a car bomb explosion. It was an impressive sight, although the turning of such an event into a romantic aesthetic spectacle might arouse some moral qualms. Cai has commented: ‘Before igniting an artwork, I am sometimes nervous, yet terrorists face death unflinchingly. Along with the sympathy we hold for the victims, I also have compassion for the young men and women who commit the act.’ Although he is now based in the West, Cai retains links with China and was responsible for the planning of the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
P. Schjedahl, ‘Gunpowder Plots’, New Yorker (25 February 2008)