Cai Guo-Qiang in Tuscany
The exceptional encounter with the great artist, at Pecci with Head On
The artist who enchanted Florence with his floral fireworks launched from Piazzale Michelangelo in the middle of the day on Sunday 18 November, had already been in Tuscany. Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial of '99, in 2006 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York dedicated him the retrospective I Want to Believe: Cai Guo-Qiang is considered one of the most important contemporary Chinese artists. We met him on the occasion of the inaugural exhibition of the new Pecci Center in Prato, in 2016, and he - who does not like the definitions - told us about his work Head On and his way of understanding art.
Can you tell us about the meaning of this work presented for the first time in Berlin in 2006?
This work, entitled Head On, was created in 2006 when I was in Berlin, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim. I was struck by the fact that the Berlin wall had already been demolished, and I thought it was easy to demolish visible walls, while invisible ones, those between people, those between cultures, are much more difficult to demolish. So I conceived this work of art: a glass wall, as tall as the Berlin Wall, with 99 wolves chasing each other, jumping in the air, crashing into the wall, falling, and then coming back and starting the tour again. For me, wolves symbolize human existence and the problems of society. In the course of history, the men have done nothing but chase each other only to go and slam back to the starting point, repeating their mistakes in a circular way. Also the choice of 99 has a meaning: in the oriental culture this number represents the infinite, the not complete, while the number 100 represents completeness and perfection. This work still has an important meaning for me today: it represents the distance between people and culture, which is still evident today in global culture. For example, the distance between the Arab world and the rest of the world or even the distance between the world and China, the distance of understanding.
Is there a reference to Nazism? Or is it more generally to history and to human nature?
No, there is no direct reference to Nazism. Tell the distance between people. Although today interpersonal relationships are facilitated by the use of the web and social media, just look at a family at the table together or friends who meet, they all seem to have their tongue glued. The work addresses these problems.
Regarding the title of the exhibition, according to you is really the end of this world?
The director of the Pecci, who is also the curator of the inaugural exhibition, is the most suitable person to answer this question. As an artist I understand why he wanted this work to be part of the show: as soon as you enter the exhibition space, you only see a couple of wolves on the ground. The wall is not very clear from afar, you have to walk further to see what happens: an endless cycle of wolves that are going to crash, but do not stop and continue to repeat this sequence. So, in a sense, there is never an end to the work. Perhaps the end of the world here indicates an end without an end.
The function of art today?
I believe that every artist has a different answer to this question. Some artists say that art has the function of transforming society, others might answer differently. As far as I'm concerned, art is a space-time tunnel that allows me to travel between the real and the invisible world, to dialogue with different cultures and to transcend time. But also to travel freely between different social systems, coming out of my individual reality.
You range from painting to drawing but also installation, video and performance: what is your favorite media?
Hard to say. At the time of my retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York in 2008, the curators of the show divided my work into four categories: drawings and paintings with gunpowder, external explosive events, installations like the one you see here, and socially committed projects. For me, these four areas are always interrelated and in some exhibitions they are all exposed, other exhibits are concentrated on a single area, like this one. My next personal exhibition, entitled My Stories of Painting, which will take place at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht in the Netherlands, starting from the 29th of this month, highlights painting, therefore a means of expression.
You here, Ai Weiwei in Florence ... what do you think of this European attention to Chinese art?
After university I moved to Japan, where I lived for 8 years, and then to the United States where I live for about 21 years. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of my departure from China. So you can say that I am a Chinese artist, an Asian, American, international artist or simply an artist. For me, classification is not the most important thing and I also believe that it should not be amplified, to exaggerate the fact that Ai Weiwei and I are in Tuscany now, at the same time. At the end of the world exhibition over one hundred artists participate, of which only two are Chinese, I believe there are also a dozen Arab artists. The public should pay attention to the exhibition as a whole, to the various types of artists and art. Ultimately, artists express themselves through the language of their art and basically every artist speaks for himself, which is also the most practical solution. We can not speak for ourselves.
Two words on the artistic direction of the Beijing Olympics?
I participated in the competition and I joined the team that dealt with the artistic direction of the Olympics, the opening and closing ceremony. My hope and my goal then were, through the work with my team, to help my country to become more modern and international, as well as to present the culture of my country to the world in another light. In addition to feeling proud of its history and culture, I also hoped to show the world that the country was opening up and developing.