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Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward
June 29 (Thu), 2023 - August 21 (Mon), 2023
Internationally renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang's large-scale solo exhibition, Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward, will open on June 29, 2023, at the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT). The exhibition is co-organized by the NACT and SAINT LAURENT.
The NACT has presented various exhibitions to promote both domestic and international contemporary art; this exhibition is curated by NACT's Director General, Eriko Osaka. The involvement in organizing Cai's exhibition marks the latest instance of SAINT LAURENT's ongoing mission, under the initiative of Anthony Vaccarello, to support excellence in various creative fields including visual arts, cinema, and music.
Cai was born in China at the end of 1957. He moved to Japan in late 1986, where he spent nearly nine years before departing for the United States in 1995. During this time, he developed his unique style and artistic concept of gunpowder creations extensively-marking an important stage in his artistic development and propelling him onto the world stage.
For decades, Cai has been fascinated by the wider universe and the unseen world, including feng shui and astrology and the ancient Eastern philosophies behind them. He also holds a long-term interest in science and technology as contemporary approaches to understanding our infinite universe. His work reveals the influence of sensitive reflections on contemporary social issues. Cai creatively uses gunpowder as his artistic medium. His large-scale paintings, installations, and outdoor explosion events are renowned worldwide and convey a grand worldview that is both mythological and anthropological.
In 1991, Cai held a solo exhibition in Tokyo, entitled Primeval Fireball: The Project for Projects, marking a milestone both within his time in Japan and across the span of his entire artistic career. The eponymous installation at the heart of the exhibition appeared in the shape of a blast wave, illustrating his Projects for Extraterrestrials and Projects for Humankind that had, at the time, yet to be realized. The title "Primeval Fireball" (原初火球）represented a merging of Cai's then understanding of astrophysics as well as a reflection on Laozi's conception of the origin of the universe.
The exhibition Ramble in the Cosmos-From Primeval Fireball Onward at NACT will thus posit the Primeval Fireball exhibition as a starting point, metaphorically Cai's artistic "Big Bang." From there, the exhibition will trace the evolution of Cai's practice, posing two questions: what triggered the "big bang" and what has occurred since then?
Cai's dialogue with the universe and the unseen world will serve as a core theme for the exhibition, revealing itself through a presentation of the artist's early works from China, followed by those from his formative years in Japan, then works made during his subsequent time in the United States and his journey onto the world stage-displaying a rich artistic journey whose growth mirrors the expansion of the universe.
NACT's 2,000-square-meter gallery, lE, will be transformed into a sweeping open space for this exhibition, evoking a public square. The historic screen painting installation Primeval Fireball will be re-created on one side of the exhibition hall, featuring three new paintings on glass and mirror with all-new subjects. Adjacent to this will stand another major highlight of the exhibition: the artist's expansive and kinetic LED installation, Encounter with the Unknown. Viewers will be invited to wander freely through these two works. The exhibition will feature approximately fifty works from the collections of major public art museums in Japan as well as from the artist's own collection. These displays will be enriched by a large selection of rare archival materials, documentary videos, and wall text written from the artist's first-person perspective.
The entire exhibition will strike audiences as a gigantic installation in its own right, where they can experience Cai's profound and liberating journey through his thoughts and practices.
The curator of this exhibition and NACT Director General, Eriko Osaka, stated, "Throughout his career, Cai Guo-Qiang has explored expressions that transcend space and time, stemming from his longing for the universe and his curiosity about the unknown. In this exhibition, he presents to us the concepts of destruction and creation, stillness and movement, the intangible and the tangible, chaos and order, life and death. Once again, he prompts us, as cosmic dust, to contemplate the perspective of the universe and the essence of our existence."
Cai himself expresses, "During my'Primeval Fireball'era, I passionately contemplated the human and global issues of the 20th century, such as materialism, the degradation of human nature, environmental destruction, and the future of the cosmos. I pondered over these issues as if I were an extraterrestrial. Reality often felt constraining, but the stars in the sky were always like guiding lights, illuminating my'ramble in the cosmos'…Now, while humanity is emerging from the shadow of the pandemic, they are still mired in social dilemmas of economic decline, global regression, and cultural conflicts on earth. Contemporary art, which once led with its avant-garde spirit of human creativity, is also diminishing. At this moment, revisiting the spirit of Primeval Fireball from thirty years ago is a reunion with my former self, and a return to the embrace of the universe—the eternal homeland of the young artist. Viewing Earth' s civilization with the eyes of the universe also holds special significance in responding to the societal challenges we face today. "
Primeval Fireball marked a transformative departure for my vision and thinking, and its lasting effects accompany me to this present moment.
June 29 (Thu), 2023 – August 21 (Mon), 2023
Closed on Tuesdays
- Opening Hours
*10:00-20:00 on Fridays and Saturdays
(Last admission 30 minutes before closing)
The National Art Center, Tokyo
Special Exhibition Gallery 1E
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8558
- Organized by
The National Art Center, Tokyo; SAINT LAURENT
- Admission (tax included)
General 1,500 yen (Adults), 1,000 yen (College students)
- Visitors who are under 18, including high school students will be admitted free.
- Disabled persons (along with the one assistant) will be admitted for free upon presenting the Disabled Person’s Booklet or an equivalent form of government-issued ID.
- Tickets are available at
・the National Art Center, Tokyo (open days only)
・Ticket PIA (in Japanese only).
- Reduction (100 yen off) applies to visitors who present the ticket stub of a current exhibition at The National Art Center, Tokyo; Suntory Museum of Art; or Mori Art Museum (Art Triangle Roppongi). Please show the ticket stub at the "Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward" exhibition ticket booth.
- Students, faculty and staff, of “Campus Members”, can view this exhibition for 800 yen (students) and 1,300 yen (faculty/staff). Please purchase tickets at the "Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward" exhibition ticket booth.
- Credit card (UC, Master Card, VISA, JCB, AMEX, Diners Club, DISCOVER), e-cash (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.), iD, J-Debit and Union Pay are available for purchasing tickets.
(+81) 47-316-2772 (Hello Dial)
Born in Quanzhou in 1957, Cai was trained in stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy. At the end of 1986, Cai moved to Japan, pursuing studies at University ofTsukuba from 1989-1991. In Japan, he worked and resided in Tokyo, Toride, and Iwaki, among other locations, and he quickly garnered widespread recognition with his gunpowder drawings. In the decades following his first explosion event in Tamagawa in 1989, Cai has realized a series of explosion works around the world. In recent years, he has started to focus on daytime fireworks, exploring the possibilities within this medium.
Since moving to New York in 1995, Cai has entered the world stage, holding major solo exhibitions in various countries and regions. These include an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006 and a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008. His recent major solo exhibitions in Japan include There and Back Again at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2015. Cai has become one of the most influential artists internationally. Furthermore, Cai was the curator of the first Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005, displaying his curatorial prowess; he also served as the Director of Visual Effects and Fireworks for both the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. His explosion event, Sky Ladder, was realized in 2015 in his hometown of Quanzhou, and an eponymous documentary was distributed worldwide by Netflix in 2016.
List of WorksJapanese & English [756 KB]
I. Pre-Primeval Fireball: What Gave Birth to the "Big Bang"?
Cai loved to paint since he was a child, an interest sparked by his father. Fascinated by the tension of the energy released by explosions, he began to use gunpowder as a medium in 1984 in his hometown of Quanzhou, in search of destruction and regeneration, as well as the rule of things reversing at their extremes. His use of gunpowder was also linked to his youthful rebellion against societal control. Cai's artistic exploration during his time in China had already begun to delve into themes such as crises facing humanity, the universe, and the Earth.
Cai Guo-Qiang, The Earth is Our Common Home, 1985
Cai Guo-Qiang, Shadow: Pray for Protection, 1985–86
After arriving in Japan, he continued to ground himself in the philosophies of Jeng shui, qi gong, Taoist thought, the I Ching (The Book of Changes), and ancient Chinese cosmologies. At the same time, Cai actively engaged with Japanese culture, finding inspiration in Japan's high-tech, modern society, as well as the local and international contemporary art and new findings in cosmology that he was exposed to there.
His lifelong fascination with the universe and the unseen world, combined with his experience in Japan, led to the development of his Project far Extraterrestrials explosion series. The realization of Human Abode: Pro;ect far Extraterrestrials No. 1 in 1989 at Tamagawa was the first of many such projects.
Cai's Project for Extraterrestrials series of explosion projects soon expanded past the boundaries of Japan and entered Europe. In 1990, at a group exhibition in the south of France, he created 45.5 Meteorite Craters Made by Humans on Their 45.5 Hundred Million Year Old Planet: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 3, a large-scale explosion event that mesmerized the Japanese art world and became the origin point for his Primeval Fireball exhibition.
II. The "Big Bang": Primeval Fireball-The Project for Projects, February 26-April 20, 1991
On December 8th, 1990, Cai turned thirty-three. In his diary entry for that day, he wrote: "Like a long passage of time filled with sweet, sour, and bitter moments, life seems to pass by swiftly, and the urgency of time becomes more pressing. Let's consider how the most recent starlight seen outside our solar system was emitted 200 years ago, before we were born. The starlight from further distances was emitted even before the birth ofLaozi; and the ones from much further away predate the story of mankind. So, at thirty-three, I am still too young. Even Laozi is young, and humankind too."
Cai Guo-Qiang, Crater, 1990
Two months later, Cai held a solo exhibition at P3 art and environment in Tokyo, Primeval Fireball: The Project far Projects, featuring seven gunpowder screen drawings arranged in the shape of a blast wave, an installation that can be seen as a sketch for his relevant explosion events. The cosmological term "Primeval Fireball" was suggested from Cai's interpretation of Laozi's writings about the origin of the universe in Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classical text: "There was something nebulous yet complete, born before Heaven and earth." The radial display, reminiscent of an explosion, symbolized cosmic beginnings and represented Cai's own energizing, bold spirit as an artist making one big step forward. He has since continued to expand upon this imagery and concepts of the monumental installation and the exhibition.
III. The post-Primeval Fireball era
In the 1990s, Cai launched a series of explosion events around the world called Projects for Extraterrestrials, while continuing to explore his project ideas through large-scale gunpowder drawings. The drawing The Immensity of Heaven and Earth: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 11 is derived from his explosion event for the Fukuoka exhibition, Exceptional Passage: Chinese Avant-Garde Artists Exhibition (1991), expressing his strong belief in the relationship between the origin of life and the cosmic order.
While carrying out a series of large-scale projects in Europe, in 1993, with the help of local people and volunteers from all over the world, Cai realized a sweeping explosion event Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No.10 in the Gobi Desert in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, China. In 1994, he held solo exhibitions at the Iwaki Museum of Art in spring and the Setagaya Museum of Art in autumn. In 1995, he received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) for the Japan-U.S. Artist Exchange Program and moved to New York, where he became ever more active in major art institutions around the world, establishing his reputation as an international contemporary artist.
At the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Cai realized the spectacular fireworks Bigfoot's Footoprints, an idea he first conceived in 1990, attracting global attention. The concept of giant footprints crossing borders and barriers set by humans was then further developed in the thirty-three-meter-long Drawingfor Footprints of History (2008), which will be on display in this upcoming exhibition. In 2015, after twenty-one years and several failed attempts, the explosion event Sky Ladder, a majestic 500-meter-high fireworks ladder connecting heaven and earth, was realized in a small fishing village in Cai's hometown of Quanzhou, China.
Encounter with the Unknown
In 2019, Cai Guo-Qiang created the large-scale firework event Encounter with the Unknown: Cosmos Pro;ect for Mexico, a project informed by Mexico's history as an ancient civilization as well as its 500 year history of Spanish colonization. The installation of giant firework towers built from traditional hand-crafted techniques showcased the convergence of different civilizations and cosmologies.
The large-scale LED light installation exhibited at NACT is a transformation of these fireworks towers into motor-driven and computer-controlled LED light paintings. It forms a vast "cosmic jungle" with horizontal and vertical dimensions. In the work, Cai utilizes LEDs to depict various images related to the universe, including galaxies, wormholes, spaceships, Einstein and Hawking, primitives and aliens, and UFOs and angels in the sky. These depictions aim to convey mankind's longstanding yearning for the universe and a curiosity and desire for the unknown world that persists in the uncertain future of today. The flickering light of the installation will envelop the adjacent screen paintings Primeval Fireball and the surrounding walls, seamlessly integrating with the exhibition's theme and the artworks on the walls.
IV. Is the spirit of Primeval Fireball still alive?
While preparing for the exhibition, Cai asked himself: "Was the spirit of Primeval Fireball lost amid the various temptations of a love for painting, art historical responsibilities, and the urge for social commentary? Or was the spirit only elusive, briefly concealing itself before resurfacing with renewed vigor?"
He continued: "The Internet is driving globalization, as well as the revolution of digitalization—including intelligentization and AI (artificial intelligence). These have triggered rapid changes in social forms and lifestyles at an unprecedented speed. In 1990, I wrote in my diary,'Being in the beginning of the computer and information age, I am excited as an artist to be part of this era of great transformation. Compared to the Impressionists facing the development of industrial civilization, we are facing a more essential and magnificent era of humanity. This self-awareness makes me feel the need to strive hard.'Now, advanced technologies like AI once again excite me. I always feel the era I face is awesome!"
Since 2017, Cai has been continuously exploring new possibilities of contemporary art through cutting-edge technologies such as AI, AR, VR, blockchain, and NFT. This exhibition presents several such new media artworks.
Cai Guo-Qiang and Iwaki
Cai Guo-Qiang lived in Japan for almost nine years, starting from December 1986. Iwaki, a coastal town in Fukushima, has had a special place in his life and art—almost a second hometown. Caiand his wife, Hong Hong Wu, possess a vibrant charisma that has deeply moved the people of Iwaki. Many of them had never set foot in an art museum, yet they felt a resonance with Cai’s youthful dreams and artistic romance. They said to Cai, “It looks interesting, let’s give it a try!” and “Leave it to us!” and wholeheartedly offered their help with sincere enthusiasm. With a determination to ensure the realization of Cai’s artworks, they formed a group called“Jikkou-kai” (The Executive Committee).
Over the past thirty years, Cai and his friends in Iwaki set sail together, starting from a small shing village and on to the world. Over the years, Cai and his friends in Iwaki have grown together through their collaborative efforts, and have witnessed each other’s hair becoming grey and their movements less nimble. This longlasting
friendship, conveyed through art, has transcended the political and historical differences between nations.
Even after Cai moved to the distant New York City in 1995, the publication of Cai Newsletter, created by his friends in Iwaki, continued periodically, keeping the people of Iwaki informed about the artist’s latest developments. They were fortunate to have each other as invaluable companions throughout their lives. Cai’s story with Iwaki continues.“To create work here, to have a dialogue with the universe from here, to create a story of the era with the people living here.”
Daytime fireworks "When the Sky Blooms with Sakura"
On June 26th, Cai realized the daytime firework event When the Sky Blooms with Sakura in Iwaki, Japan. The event took place along the Yotsukura coastline, where thirty years ago Cai and his friends in Iwaki worked together to complete the explosion event The Horizon from the Pan-Pacifi·c: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14. The artwork was commissioned by SAINT LAURENT and organized by the Executive Committee of the project, preluding the opening of the exhibition.
About SAINT LAURENT
Founded in 1961, Yves Saint Laurent is one of the most prominent fashion houses in the world. Originally an Haute Couture house, the company later also became a pioneer in ready-to-wear, as its legendary founder revolutionized the relationship between fashion, art, and society. From its beginnings, the house of Saint Laurent has engaged with and influenced a multitude of creative forms beyond fashion. This dialogue with diverse artistic expressions continues today under the visionary direction of Anthony Vaccarello and the leadership of Francesca Bellettini, who have built on it to expand the brand's commitment to excellence and further development.
This book is for internationally renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang's large-scale solo exhibition, Ramble in the Cosmos―From Primeval Fireball Onward. This exhibition catalogue will feature approximately fifty works from the collections of major public art museums in Japan as well as from the artist's own collection, including new works exploded on glass and mirror making their debut in Japan. This book will be enriched by a large selection of rare archival materials as well as essays and texts written from the artist's first-person perspective.
Size: A4 variation (29.1×22.5cm)
Number of Pages: 256
Languages: Japanese-English bilingual
Price: 4,290 yen (incl. tax)
Date of Issue: June 27, 2023
Edited-in-Chief: Cai Guo-Qiang
Published and Distributed by: Culture Convenience Club Co, Ltd. and Bijutsu Shuppan-sha Co., Ltd.
A list of materials related to the exhibition that were introduced in the Art Library are available on the OPAC. Please click here to see the list on Past Special Book Exhibit page.