Studio Visit: Cai Guo-Qiang

The artist shows us around his downtown Manhattan workspace to talk art, life, and the cosmos.

When Cai Guo-Qiang sends me an invitation to have tea at his East Village studio, no winter storm—not even the strongest New York has seen in years—can prevent me from getting there. On the first day of the New Year, I venture onto Manhattan’s freezing street, and with no taxis on offer, defy the brutal winds and walk 30 minutes eastward. Under scaffolding, covered in snow and trash, I find the red door that will lead me to the artist’s studio. The smiling face of Sang Luo, Cai’s longtime assistant, soon greets me, and together we traverse a dark corridor. I leave the weather and all the rest of life’s inclemencies with the stone lion gatekeeper poised at the entrance, and enter into Cai’s world.

The place is a temple of warmth and peace—exceedingly calm, perhaps, for one of the busiest and most acclaimed artist of the moment (he’s just had major solo exhibitions open at both the Prado Museum in Madrid and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow). After taking the long bouquet of white amaryllis out of my hands and inhaling its scent he tells me he is ready for our interview. We quickly jump into art, painting, and the cosmos. Time flies. So much so, that I miss my flight back to Madrid. But it’s worth it. Here is what he told me.

Introduce us to this space.

This has been my studio for fifteen years, since 2003. It used to be a public primary school, then it turned into a residency building, mostly for artists. I bought the place from my friend Maja Hoffmann. It used to house her film production company—one of the works she produced is the documentary on Frank Gehry. It was a pleasant surprise that I later became a good friend of Frank’s.

My wife looked around for a long time for a potential studio, but she had no luck. I met a real estate agent and drew something for him, something that met my basic criteria: It had to be a ten-minute walk from my apartment, it had to have a big gallery space to present my work, and a few smaller spaces (office areas and a kitchen), and it had to be on the ground floor. It is good to be rooted to the ground, rooted to the land and the earth. The agent input all the data in his system and it only gave us one option. This was it.  

It was also [a good fit] because of [its] feng shui. It has high ceilings and its situated in the north facing south slightly tilted to the east. This orientation means it can help fend off the freezing wind from the north and let in more sunshine from the south. The renovation was done by OMA, Rem Koolhaas’s company. They managed to have two yards, in the ground floor and in the basement, and designed a vertical structure between them to let in more natural light.

There is one tiny disadvantage to this place: The door is facing the front gate, which means you let in whatever it is outside straight into your studio—that is not that ideal. I placed a stone lion right outside my door so that it can help to ward off those evil spirits while letting in the good ones.  

How much time do you spend here? How do you separate this studio space from your studio space at home in New Jersey?

As per my daily routine, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. I go to the gym. Afterward I have a big breakfast—very big! I have a cup of tea, multigrain porridge, fried vegetables and stirred rice, finished by more fruit and tea. It’s a long and big breakfast during which I will read the news on my iPad. Towards noon, when the studio has been asking me again and again to come, I will walk to the studio, which takes five to ten minutes from my apartment.

First thing I do when I arrive is to go to the gallery and check on my paintings. After a whole night sleeping, I may have some feelings about my own work overnight. Secondly, I will have a meeting with my projects managers and archivists to check on the status of projects.

Whenever I am in New York we will have guests coming for lunch. I developed this habit very young in my home country—I learned it from my grandmother who treated her guests with great hospitality. I have lots of friends from around the world so whenever they come visit, I always ask them to stay for lunch. Because of this we keep two Chinese chefs in house, who cook southern style Chinese dishes. It is an opportunity for the studio staff to hear from people from around the world talk about various things. They may be scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, philosophers… and lots of friends from the art world. It is also an opportunity  for them to get together. After, I would work all the way till 7 or 8 p.m. I check my works again before turning the lights off. It’s as if it has been a long day and I have accomplished a lot of work when in fact what I’ve been doing is talking ideas.

For the real creation of my paintings and drawings, I will go to the countryside to my studio in New Jersey, designed by my friend Frank Gehry. To create gunpowder paintings, I go to Long Island where there is a fireworks company with a factory for me to do explosions. 

You often speak about art as a way for you to create your own perfect reality. At the same time, your work is very social, and expresses real social and political ideas. Can you explain this oscillation between reality and invented reality?

In my discussions with my assistants we often reflect on the unseen world. We ask ourselves why are we doing this—what are we doing and how to do it. In this way I am creating my own personal space, even virtual space. Art for me is my time and space channel, which brings me in and out the supernatural world, briefly transitioning between the temporal and eternal world.

Being an artist is a gift. Everyone is facing these fundamental issues: the relationship between the seen and unseen worlds, matters of life and death, as well as their feelings and affections. Everyone asks, What is the universe? But, being an artist you have the perfect excuse to wholeheartedly think about these fundamental matters all day, because it’s just your work. As an artist, I get to paint out my melancholy and all those feeling about all those fundamental things. 

Your works are a unique collaboration of many individuals, supporters, studio assistants, industries come together to make your projects possible. How is it to work with a team?

I often say that I’m just like a seed that has been planted in different countries and seasons, rooted into the land and blossoming in different fields around the world. For all of this, I need a particular attitude, and I am grateful to my staff. They joined my studio in their twenties with passion, and may leave in three or five or eight years. I often say with special pride that I have been God’s blessed kid. God has been helping me by sending me lots of great people to help me. 

I do have a lot of free moments [by myself]. For example, while Sang Luo is translating my answers I get some moments to think freely and my mind just goes elsewhere. But even while I am working with a big group of collaborators, deep in myself, I am always lonely. Despite the size of the team, I forever experience moments of isolation, personal debates, and uncertainties. When I’m facing that blank canvas, I’m just like all those artists before me, who, for thousands of years, didn’t know the best way to present their sensibility. Art ultimately can be shared, but the responsibility—I have to take it myself.

What can you tell us about your upcoming “Cosmos” project for October 2018?

After my Prado exhibition I got to engage more with Renaissance art and to reflect on art history painting and its relationship with contemporary painting. Throughout this process I am in a constant dialogue with time, space, and the unseen world. The Cosmos project will manifest in three places in the world: The first stop will be linked with the emotions and feelings of the past, the second stop will relay our feelings today, and the third stop will be about the future.

I have been thinking about how to present the universe through art, how it would be different than doing it through science. As I get deeper into my study, I feel I need to go back to the very beginning of everything, so that I may present my concept through the fairy tales and fables: from the cosmos to Einstein, all the way to our future explorations. 

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