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A Cosmic Journey through Art: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Vision Transforms Tokyo’s National Art Center

Saint Laurent Co-organizes Cai Guo-Qiang’s Unique Solo Exhibition in Tokyo

The National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT) in conjunction with French fashion house Saint Laurent is thrilled to announce the upcoming large-scale solo exhibition of internationally acclaimed contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. The exhibition, titled “Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward,” is scheduled to open on the 29th of June, 2023, and promises to transport viewers through a celestial artistic journey, embodying Cai’s ongoing fascination with the cosmos.

Cai Guo-Qiang, the mastermind behind these awe-inspiring pieces, is renowned for his imaginative prowess and the ability to incorporate unconventional elements into his works. Among these elements is his signature artistic medium – gunpowder. A seemingly dangerous and volatile material, yet under Cai’s skilled hand, it is transformed into a spectacle of creation and destruction, echoing the primordial chaos from which the universe emerged.


Cai’s fascination with the universe, celestial bodies, and the unseen world, is deeply rooted in the traditions of his upbringing in Quanzhou, an ancient Chinese city known for its astrological and feng shui traditions. This cosmic perspective is further informed by his exploration of contemporary scientific and technological advancements and their interplay with age-old Eastern philosophies. Cai’s multidimensional approach presents a rich tapestry of universal narratives that explore human existence and societal issues through an astronomical lens.

During his pivotal years in Japan, between 1986 and 1995, Cai honed his unique gunpowder technique. He found a deep connection with the Japanese people, particularly those of Iwaki City, which continues to nourish his work, infusing it with warmth and depth.

In 1991, Cai presented his solo exhibition “Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects” at Tokyo’s P3 art and environment. This exhibition served as a crucial turning point in his career, introducing his explosive Projects for Extraterrestrials and Projects for Mankind. The Primeval Fireball represented the artist’s understanding of astrophysics and Lao Tzu’s concept of the universe’s genesis.

This historical moment forms the basis for the “Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward” exhibition, casting the Primeval Fireball exhibition as Cai’s artistic “Big Bang.” It seeks to chronicle the evolution of Cai’s work from the symbolic explosion and beyond, posing the questions: What ignited this artistic “Big Bang,” and what has unfurled since then?

The core theme of the exhibition is Cai’s dialogue with the universe and the unseen world, which will manifest through a chronological presentation of his artistry. The showcase will begin with early works from his native China, transit through his formative years in Japan, venture into his American phase, and finally, transition onto his global exposure. This thoughtful curation illustrates the artist’s growth, which parallels the universe’s expansion.

NACT’s vast 2,000-square-meter gallery, 1E, will metamorphose into a grand open space for this exhibition, simulating a public square. The historic screen painting installation Primeval Fireball will be rejuvenated, featuring three new glass and mirror paintings with fresh subjects. Flanking this will be a monumental kinetic LED installation, Encounter with the Unknown, compelling viewers to meander freely and explore these captivating works.

The exhibition will comprise approximately fifty works, including some grouped collections, drawn from prestigious public art museums in Japan and Cai’s private collection. These pieces will be complemented by a rich assortment of archival materials, documentary videos, and first-person perspective wall texts, providing audiences an immersive insight into the artist’s evolution.

Several new works making their Japanese debut at this exhibition, including explosive art on glass and mirror, further testify to the artist’s enduring innovative spirit. The entire exhibition is designed to function as a singular gigantic installation, where each piece is an integral part of the narrative, revealing Cai’s idiosyncratic perspectives and artistic journey. This holistic approach aims to enable audiences to immerse themselves fully into Cai’s universe, experiencing firsthand the depth and breadth of his creativity.

To add to the anticipation, a daytime fireworks event, titled “When the Sky Blooms with Sakura,” has been commissioned by Saint Laurent. This pyrotechnic display, organized by the Executive Committee of the project, will light up the same coast where Cai’s landmark explosion event “The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14” was realized thirty years prior.

This fusion of art and fireworks is yet another testament to Cai’s innovative spirit and his capacity to transform any medium into an artistic expression. Here, the ephemeral beauty of the cherry blossom is mirrored in the fleeting brilliance of fireworks, symbolizing the transient nature of life and the sublime beauty of the universe.

The upcoming exhibition is an exciting instance of Saint Laurent’s continuing initiative, under the direction of Anthony Vaccarello, to foster creativity and excellence across various art forms, including visual arts, cinema, and music. 

Exhibition content

1. The Genesis of the Primeval Fireball – Unearthing the Origins of My “Big Bang”

From an early age, Cai Guo-Qiang harbored a deep affection for painting, a passion inspired by his father’s influence. Intrigued by the compelling energy emitted from explosions, he began to incorporate gunpowder into his artworks as early as 1984. Upon moving to Japan towards the close of 1986, Cai continued to broaden his experimental horizons.

With the help and support of friends, including some pyrotechnicians, Cai’s gunpowder paintings began to expand in scale. In 1988, a landmark solo exhibition at Tokyo’s Kigoma Gallery marked a significant turning point in his career. Following this pivotal exhibition, Cai began to gain considerable recognition within the Japanese art scene, showcasing his works at an array of art events and exhibitions. It was during this period that the seeds of his iconic Primeval Fireball started to take root, heralding the beginning of his artistic “Big Bang.”

In his early artistic phase in China, Cai had already commenced his exploration into themes deeply tied to the human condition, meditating on both cosmic and terrestrial dilemmas. Upon setting foot in Japan, he delved deeper into Eastern philosophies like feng shui, qigong, Taoism, the I Ching (The Book of Changes), and ancient Chinese cosmologies, continuing to ground his artistry in these traditional wisdoms.

Simultaneously, Cai enthusiastically embraced the Japanese culture, drawing inspiration from the nation’s cutting-edge, modern society. He delved into both local and global contemporary art, as well as new discoveries in the field of cosmology he encountered during his time there. This kaleidoscope of influences, combined with his enduring fascination with the cosmos and unseen realms, culminated in the creation of his renowned Project for Extraterrestrials explosion series.

The series’ inaugural installment, “Human Abode: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 1,” was realized in 1989 at Tamagawa, marking the first of a multitude of similar undertakings. These experiences and explorations set the foundation for a dynamic artistic journey, one that Cai continues to embark on with a spirit of ceaseless curiosity and innovation.

2. The Emergence of the Primeval Fireball


The revolutionary spark of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Project for Extraterrestrials series soon transcended the confines of Japan, captivating audiences across Europe. In 1990, during a group exhibition in southern France, Cai unveiled his striking large-scale explosion event titled “45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 3.” This spectacular event left a profound impression on the Japanese art world and served as a genesis point for his landmark Primeval Fireball exhibition.

In 1991, Cai held a solo exhibition at P3 Art Space in Tokyo, entitled “Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects.” The show’s centerpiece featured seven gunpowder screen drawings, arranged to mimic the form of a blast wave. This installation, embodying the essence of his preceding explosion events, served as a conceptual sketch for future endeavors.

The exhibition’s titular term “Primeval Fireball” stemmed from Cai’s reflection on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a classic Chinese text that muses on the origin of the universe. It professes, “There was something nebulous yet complete, born before Heaven and earth.” The radial arrangement of his artworks, which echoes the form of an explosion, symbolizes cosmic beginnings and encapsulates Cai’s own bold, kinetic spirit as an artist taking significant strides forward. This imagery and the concepts inherent in this monumental installation have since become recurring themes in Cai’s subsequent works and exhibitions, representing the continual expansion of his artistic universe.

3. The Post-Primeval Fireball Epoch


Throughout the 1990s, Cai Guo-Qiang proliferated his groundbreaking Projects for Extraterrestrials explosion events around the globe, while simultaneously pursuing large-scale gunpowder drawings as a means to further examine his project ideas. One notable piece, “The Immensity of Heaven and Earth: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 11,” originated from his explosion event for the 1991 Fukuoka exhibition, “Exceptional Passage: Chinese Avant-Garde Artists Exhibition.” It embodies Cai’s fervent belief in the profound connection between life’s origin and cosmic order.

As Cai orchestrated a multitude of large-scale projects across Europe, he managed, in 1993, with the assistance of locals and volunteers worldwide, to create an immense explosion event in China’s Gobi Desert. The event, titled “Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10,” took place in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province. In the following year, he held solo exhibitions at the Iwaki Museum of Art in the spring and the Setagaya Museum of Art in the autumn. His move to New York in 1995 marked another pivotal moment in his career, as he began to actively engage with major art institutions worldwide, further cementing his status as an international contemporary artist.

A major breakthrough came in 2008, during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. Cai brought to life the spectacular fireworks display, “Bigfoot’s Footprints,” a concept he had conceived nearly two decades prior in 1990. This spectacle of gigantic footprints crossing human-made boundaries captivated a global audience. This concept was later elaborated on in the 33-meter-long sketch scroll, “Drawing for Footprints of History” (2008), which will be showcased in the upcoming exhibition.

After numerous unsuccessful attempts spanning 21 years, in 2015, Cai finally realized his ambitious explosion event, “Sky Ladder.” This awe-inspiring 500-meter-high fireworks ladder, connecting heaven and earth, came to life in a small fishing village in Cai’s native Quanzhou, China. This magnificent piece serves as a testament to Cai’s persistence, patience, and artistic brilliance.

4. Crossing Paths with the Unknown


In 2019, Cai Guo-Qiang conceived the large-scale fireworks event, “Encounter with the Unknown: Cosmos Project for Mexico.” This project drew inspiration from Mexico’s rich history as an ancient civilization and the subsequent era of Spanish colonization that commenced over five centuries ago. The installation, composed of giant firework towers crafted using traditional hand-made techniques, interprets the meeting point between distinct civilizations and cosmologies.

In a revolutionary move in 2021, Cai transformed these firework towers into a vibrant LED light installation, a veritable “sketch of light.” This reinterpretation premiered at the Museum of Art Pudong in Shanghai, marking a new direction in his use of media.

However, for the exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT), Cai has re-envisioned “Encounter with the Unknown.” Instead of the vertical alignment presented in Shanghai, it will be arranged horizontally, invoking a “cosmic jungle” specifically tailored to the gallery space within NACT.

In this work, Cai employs LEDs to illustrate a plethora of cosmic images, encompassing galaxies, wormholes, spaceships, Einstein and Hawking, primitive beings and aliens, and UFOs and angels adorning the sky. The twinkling radiance of the installation will encapsulate the adjacent screen paintings, the Primeval Fireball, and the encompassing walls. This immersion in light opens a portal to the universe and the unseen world that Cai has so deftly envisaged, further underlining his artistic dynamism and capacity for innovation.

Japan: The Epicenter of Cai’s Artistic Revolution

Starting in 1986, Cai resided in Japan for close to a decade, a period of significant artistic growth and evolution for him. His experiences during this period led him to emphasize the inherent beauty of materials and forms in his work. In Japan, Cai began his groundbreaking outdoor explosion events, birthing his Projects for Extraterrestrials. Furthermore, he harnessed the robustness and subtlety of handcrafted Japanese paper to fashion dynamic gunpowder drawings. As he materialized his conceptions of the unseen world through his gunpowder works, he found an appreciative audience in Japan, fostering friendships and associations with renowned cultural institutions.

Although he moved to New York in 1995 and initiated art projects worldwide, Cai has maintained a profound connection with Japan. He was the recipient of the 7th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2017 and was honored with the 20th Fukuoka Asian Art and Culture Award in 2009. In the same year, he received the 24th Praemium Imperiale–Lifetime Achievement in the painting category. Numerous Japanese museums have acquired and regularly exhibit Cai’s artworks. In 2013, Cai established the local Snake Museum of Contemporary Art in Iwaki, Fukushima, where he has longstanding ties. In 2015, his significant solo exhibition, There and Back Again, debuted at the Yokohama Museum of Art. The exhibition at NACT will trace the evolution of Cai’s artistic “Big Bang” since 1991, expressing his enduring gratitude to the people of Japan who nurtured his art during its formative stage.

Immersive Installations: A Cosmic Conversation – Primeval Fireball and Encounter with the Unknown

The artist himself envisaged the exhibition layout. Within the sprawling 2,000-square-meter space of Exhibition Hall 1E, free from any dividing walls, two grand installations, Primeval Fireball and Encounter with the Unknown, will sit adjacent to each other. Surrounding walls will display a diverse range of works tracing his journey from his formative years in Quanzhou and Japan in the 1980s to pieces of varied scale crafted after his relocation to the United States in 1995. These include his recent forays into AI technologies and the conception of the “metaverse,” a blend of digitization and emerging forms of intelligence. The narrative of Cai’s journey, relayed in his own voice, will unfurl within this expansive space.

This unique exhibition arrangement encapsulates Cai’s temporal and spatial experiences, driven by his enduring fascination with the universe. The exhibition will manifest as a single, expansive installation, embodying Cai’s extraordinary, personal voyage.

Topics: Cai Guo-Qiang Art Exhibition, Gunpowder Art by Cai Guo-Qiang, “Saint Laurent Co-organized Exhibition, National Art Center Tokyo Exhibitions, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Cosmic Art, Artistic Universe Exploration, Primeval Fireball Art Installation, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Creative Evolution, Contemporary Art Showcasing Feng Shui and Astrology

Last Updated on 2023/05/29

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