40,000 bottle rockets make for a lot of noise and a lot of glare. Especially when they come hurtling toward your face. On April 7, 2012, artist Cai Guo-Qiang — known for his gunpowder drawings and performative “explosion events” — opened Sky Ladder at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary location with just such an experience. Called Mystery Circle, the event was pure spectacle. Over a thousand people showed up to watch Guo-Qiang use the rockets to burn images of crop circles and a Byzantine alien onto MOCA’s side.
Danielle Sommer: This is your first West Coast exhibition?
Cai Guo-Qiang: The first solo exhibition on the West Coast.
DS: Did that influence how you conceived the work? Is there anything specific about Los Angeles or the Western U.S. involved?
CGT: So back in the mid-nineties, when I was about to move from Japan to the U.S., I had a friend who was the editor of a major art magazine who told me that the West Coast is the closest place to the universe in the world. There’s a lot of hi-tech development, and also the aerospace industry is here.
DS: You’ve said that the role of art is to provide a distance for people to see certain issues and certain events – and that that distance is necessary to find the meaning below the surface. What it is about art that creates that distance? What is the meaning below the surface of this work?
CGT: Because the exhibition is titled Sky Ladder, there is a sense of distance between humans on Earth, and the universe and outer space. It’s also a pictorial review of my art career and the past works and projects I’ve done through the years. With the crop circle installation, it’s a reversal of the normal perspective, where we humans are looking from outer space onto Earth.
DS: You talked about your first rocket painting being a tiny canvas in your studio. Do you still have a studio practice? Do you do things that are just for your own eyes?
CGT: I still have a studio, but when I mentioned that I was working with that canvas thirty years ago, it was in my hometown in China. Of course, now my studio is located in New York, but it’s where I conceive ideas or make sketches. When it comes to using gunpowder, because you need a permit for that, we go out to Brookhaven and Long Island.
DS: Jeffery Dietch said that he considers your work both spectacular and intimate. How do you feel when you’re experiencing it?
CGT: A lot of times very anxious — very excited in anticipating the event. When that happens, I feel at one with the audience.
DS: We all jumped back together.
CGT: I got hit by a few rockets!
DS: I saw that!
CGT: You saw that?
DS: I did.