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Boris Groys and Cai Guo-Qiang: A Conversation from a Studio Visit

March 4, 2017

Cai Guo-Qiang: These are my latest studies in painting. For decades, I worked with black gunpowder; as you can see, it produces a softer shade. These past few years, I started painting with color gunpowder, which is the material I have been using to create daytime fireworks. Some of these paintings are made with color gunpowder from Japan; others are made with color gunpowder from China.

Boris Groys: I saw your exhibition at the Guggenheim.

CGQ: Back then I was using black gunpowder. Color gunpowder is black gunpowder with colorants, to make daytime fireworks. You might be surprised to see that I am pursuing painting wholeheartedly these days.

BG: But you know, a lot of artists nowadays are going into painting again. Also my friends.

CGQ: Because we are facing a lot of uncertainties these days, and in comparison painting seems straightforward and simple—although it is not.

BG: Yeah, that’s true.

CGQ: For me, it’s also a good opportunity because I have a solo exhibition of paintings at the Prado Museum scheduled to open in October. I’ve created a very difficult challenge for myself, so now I have nowhere to retreat to.

BG: But actually, the images are very baroque. So they would fit into the Prado.

CGQ: I’m researching the techniques of El Greco, the mystique, liberty, and sensitivity in his paintings.

This one is inspired by a Goya painting.

BG: Yeah, this one is really baroque.

CGQ: Some of these paintings are made with black color gunpowder. It is different from the traditional gunpowder that I used before—it is dyed with black pigment, so it’s darker, more intense. This painting portrays the Tiananmen Gate. These paintings are sketches for the daytime fireworks on Red Square.

My approaches for the Prado exhibition versus the Pushkin are very different. At the Prado, what I am faced with is the history of painting, its glory, the old masters, and the challenges that painting faces today. In Russia, on the other hand, and especially upon the centenary of the October Revolution, I am confronted with questions of the humanity and its destiny. [Editor: Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition “October” was held at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow from September 13 to November 12, 2017.]

BG: You know, Red Square originally didn’t mean “red.” Originally, the word “Красный” means “beautiful.” In medieval time, the square was called “Beautiful Square.” But then, maybe also in China, the color “red” began to be seen as especially beautiful. So this “Beautiful Square” was retitled as “Red Square.”

CGQ: So it wasn’t renamed to “Red Square” during the Soviet era?

BG: Not at all. It’s medieval. It happened before the revolution. In the nineteenth century, it was already called Red Square. “Красный” became “Red.” It happened in language. Already, in that time, as I was in China and I was reminded that, red had a very positive meaning.

CGQ: In China, it’s red and yellow [that have a very positive meaning].

BG: But yellow means, I think, also war in China, no?

CGQ: In ancient times, yellow represented central [imperial] power and land, which was centrally owned, as well as gold, wealth, and happiness. In Wu Xing (the Five Elements), yellow [representing earth] is in the center. Of course, it was later used to refer to the yellow skin as a symbol of national identity. That came much later—because you have to know about black people and white people to think of your own skin as yellow …

BG: But I think yellow came from the West. It’s an idea from the West that Chinese people’s skin is yellow.

CGQ: I also think this notion started when the Westerners came to the East, along with the concurrent rise of nationalism. When the Mongols invaded Europe, the Westerners were treating them as “the yellow peril” …

BG: But yellow actually is not yellow. It’s kind of barbaric …

You know that El Greco was Greek, and he was very much interested in Byzantine icons. The sign behind Christ here, that is the sign of transfiguration, and that was square, and it was used by Malevich. Because in the Western tradition, it is round, but in the Byzantine tradition, the sign of transfiguration is a square. It is how He was seen. You know the story: before he was crucified, he spent a night in the Gethsemane Garden. And in the night he was transfigured in the light, and this light in the Byzantine tradition is a square.

CGQ: Why a square?

BG: If you look at the Byzantine tradition and Russian tradition, there are not one square but four different squares. All of them were used by Russian suprematism and Malevich. Behind the figure of Christ, there are red square, green square, or maybe blue square, and also black square. And that is all symbols of earth, because square in Byzantine tradition is a symbol of earth, because there’s a trinity, and the fourth part is earth. So square unites the divine trinity with the principal of earth. And that is the principal of transfiguration, which is the unity between the divine and the earthly. I just came from Greece, and I saw a huge amount of Byzantine art. But I would say that in Russian icons … there is much more geometry.

CGQ: And that’s also the case in the Orthodox Christian tradition?

BG: Yes. And Orthodox Christianity forbids you to show anything that happens on earth. The Orthodox church doesn’t allow any mimetic images, images showing earthly objects. It forbids to show shadows, sources of light, including sun and moon. So everything that they can show is something happening outside the earth, in transcendent space, which is very formalized. If you make a figure, you have always a sign on the right that says what it means. So it’s like suprematism and conceptualism. It’s like the same principle of the Kosuth chairs, it’s a very old tradition that came out of something that never happened in the West. There were two hundred years of wars between iconophiles and iconoclasts. And then it came to a compromise, and that was the compromise, which is to paint and also to explain. So you can paint, but not about things on earth.

CGQ: And everything outside of the earth is created by the human imagination.

BG: You paint something that God sent you in the night as a dream. The artist describes the dream, goes to the priest, tells the dream, and if the dream is okay, he can paint it. So it’s a censorship of the dreams! So no sexual dreams.

CGQ: I’m surprised that you have studied much about this period … its shapes and geometry, not just philosophy.

BG: I was always interested in theology, and theology of the image. I was also very much interested in Islamic theology image.

CGQ: This series of nine panels portrays a poppy flower. I started by using two colors, black and red. At the beginning, there was a lot of black. And from left to right, I reduced the amount of black, until the last piece, where I took out black completely and used only red.

BG: It’s very beautiful

CGQ: What I am trying to do is ask the material and energy to transform through time and space by itself.

BG: Then you removed black completely and there’s only one image here. Like liberation.

CGQ: Yes, because the whole time black is suppressing red. In the end I took it out.

This one, Valley in Heat, is in dialogue with the colorful painting, Mountain in Heat. The center is empty of images, and is filled by the smoke coming from the explosion that happened on the bottom part of the painting. The motif is Aphrodisiac mushrooms. They embody a desire that’s uncontrollable, sometimes even a little evil. Artists always try to open a sky light for themselves, where the moral and the evil can both enter.

BG: Yeah, it’s Flowers of Evil, like these poems by Baudelaire!

CGQ: Yes, you can say I’m painting flowers of evil.

BG: So these are works that will go to Moscow?

CGQ: These are tests. Most of the work will be produced on-site in Moscow, in collaboration with the Moscow art students and the general public.

BG: So you’ll spend a lot of time there?

CGQ: Yes, quite a lot of time, almost a month.

This painting is also a test for the Moscow exhibition. The story is that when I was little—I grew up in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, across the strait from Taiwan—my father used to take me on the backseat of his bicycle, and bike for forty minutes to go watch the Red Guards carving a giant Mao portrait on the face of the mountain outside of the town. I remember seeing some Red Guards talking on walkie-talkies to direct those on the cliff. Later I realized that it was the first piece of landscape-based art that I had seen. As I started working on large-scale explosion projects, I also directed volunteers with walkie-talkies. This year, in commemoration of the centenary of the October Revolution, I am hoping to go back to my hometown and create an ink rubbing of the Mao portrait.

BG: The portrait is still there?

CGQ: Yes, a little more faded than before. Back then, this image was carved almost as a religious icon.

So I want to preserve the memory of my childhood, and of my father’s time. This past month I went for a site visit; to my surprise the cliff is very steep. The local guide told me that three Red Guards fell to their death during the project! This time, without a harness, I was only able to touch the star on Mao’s hat.

[Touring the downstairs studio space.]

CGQ: That’s a painting by my father.

BG: He was an artist, yes?

CGQ: Yes, and a calligrapher. I grew up influenced by him. At the same time, I saw his struggle. On the one hand, he was conservative and attached to tradition; on the other hand, he really desired to break free and do something different—but he was too timid.

BG: Was it difficult for him during the times of the Cultural Revolution?

CGQ: Of course. As an intellectual, he was very afraid of getting in “trouble.” He used to manage the state-owned bookstore in town, and we had many books at home. And at night, I used to help him burn a lot of his books.

BG: You destroyed the books themselves …

CGQ: Yes, and we had to do it in the middle of the night so no one else saw it. We had to pretend that we had never read or owned any of these books, and that our minds were “clean.” Everyone pretended that they had only read one book—Mao’s “Little Red Book.”

BG: For sure!

[Conversation continues over lunch.]

CGQ: When I go to a country, especially one I have not visited before, it often seems to me what I encounter is only the corpse of a culture, a shell, presented only for tourists. I can’t see what’s inside.

BG: Yes, but if you begin to work there, you begin to understand it.

CGQ: Yes, and you have to work with local people.

BG: And some institutions. After I worked with the Shanghai Biennale, during a year, I understood how Chinese culture worked.

CGQ: Are you still on their advisory board?

BG: Not any more. But at that time, they were actually very influenced by my book Art Power. They liked it. Originally the title was going to be “Art Power Station.”

CGQ: They should have [kept that name]!

BG: Yeah, but they didn’t want it … They produced pencils that say “Art gives power—Boris Groys.”

I was lecturing in Taiwan a few years ago. They also read Art Power there. A girl asked me: Why do you believe art has power? Only the American president has power.” I told her, “The American president has power for only eight years maximum, and art academies and museums have been around for a very long time.” But for young people, eight years is already a very long time …

CGQ: Young people today don’t believe in the power of art any more.

BG: No, it’s very strange.

CGQ: Yeah…

BG: I don’t think young people are interested in power at all. They are interested in popularity. It’s not the same thing!

CGQ: To me, part of art’s power resides in its non-practicality. These days, we are so utilitarian that we can’t see the power of things that are useless.

BG: Yes of course, art and museums are based on non-use. But the young are interested in the internet. And internet popularity. My students say, “I want to make viral videos.” So I looked at the statistics. The most successful viral videos are made by 1) dogs, 2) cats, and 3) car accidents. So I think it is difficult for us to compete with cats and dogs.

CGQ: [Toasts another Mao Tai (Chinese vodka) to BG, notices BG only takes sips, comments:] You are drinking it in the new Russian way. We still drink in the old communist way.

BG: [laughs] I am a new Russian…

CGQ: These days, everyone we encounter [in Russia] is a new Russian. We keep looking for people to toast with, as if we were a bunch of nostalgic communists.

BG: Of course I’m also a nostalgic communist.

CGQ: I noticed one thing. A lot of Chinese people who fled from China, they still like to sing old songs from the communist time. They fled because they resented that system, but these songs already become a representation of their youth, like old photographs they still hold onto. The beauty of their youth has become an anesthesia. They can’t deny all of it, otherwise they would have nothing left.

BG: There is one additional element. It was a common experience—it was something that united an individual with others. This is specific to communism. It might be a dramatic experience, but it did create a sense of the common. Under the condition of capitalism, you can be happy or unhappy, but that’s your individual problem. If you meet somebody from a communist past of course you begin to sing these old songs, because they unite you. I think people have nostalgia precisely for that common experience.

CGQ: Yes, I very much agree. Communism was successful in making people feel as though they have been transformed from being slaves to becoming the masters of the earth. Communism promoted a kind of utopian universalism.

BG: Now universalism is over. When we speak about universalism, we understand it as imperialism. But that’s not true. In communism, there is also a sense of equality. Capitalism is based on inequality. In communism, there’s a sense of equality and, therefore, commonality.

CGQ: Communism is a very resourceful kind of -ism. It can make a large majority of uncultured peasants suddenly feel that they have thoughts and philosophy!

Previously, they felt miserable about themselves being illiterate, and then suddenly they felt themselves thinking about mankind, the earth, and the systems that had been in place for thousands of years; what was exploitation and being exploited; what was social class; why they must rebel. As though they saw the essence of mankind. They suddenly felt the happiness of being exalted. Moreover, they found comrades. In the same group and social class they learned together, communicated their thoughts, and were willing to sacrifice themselves for shared ideals. They didn’t surrender when they got caught—that was really something. You couldn’t use beautiful women or money to tempt them. That was an era of grand ideals.

BG: No, of course not, because objects and money divide them. This money and these objects create division between people. The one book that everyone read was by Mao. But the interesting thing is that here in New York, I have classes of twenty to thirty people, and not two of them have read the same book; not two have them have even seen the same movie. So it is an extreme division. It is almost impossible to find some kind of common ground, common experience. It’s really mystifying—I think it’s very characteristic of our time. Globalism is understood as global competition. So you have your individual abilities, skills, and then you sell them on the global market. And that brings you into a situation of Cold War with everybody else.

CGQ: It creates a single standard for success.

BG: No solidarity.

CGQ: Everyone has the same standard, whether they’re a politician, entrepreneur, or painter.

BG: It’s our contemporary culture.

CGQ: I had an exhibition in Ukraine once. During that time, I worked with local documentarians because I was curious about their perspective, aesthetics, and camera language. However, to my surprise, the videos made by videographers in Donetsk still looked American.

BG: They are absolutely American. Russians are more American than Western Europeans.

CGQ: This was similar to the time I went to paint en plein air in Xinjiang when I was young. I had hoped to paint local people, but I quickly noticed that the models selected by my local hosts all looked like us Han people. So I asked, “Why did you pick this person?” They said, “Because they are more beautiful.” So while I thought the local Uyghurs were more beautiful, they wanted to look more like Han people. This was perhaps because the Han people were the dominant people. Culture works the same way. Everyone thinks American culture is the best. Every museum around the world looks the same—they all try to look like American museums or Western museums.

BG: Which is strange because American culture is very week—I mean, compared to European. But I think that is why America is so popular in Russia, China, etc., because America showed how to appropriate a certain kind of culture very fast. America is basically uncultured, but it has the means to appropriate, to create a certain kind of culture in a very fast-paced way. Russia does the same, China does the same. Latin America in a certain way also does the same. Everybody these days.

CGQ: That’s why the American mainstream is worried that Trump will cause America to lose its global domination.

BG: What makes America America in the first place is military power. They created this after English power, the next biggest system in control. That’s why they could build the internet and so on. You cannot do that without military control; you have to control territories. It’s like England—they had colonies, commerce via the sea, etc. It’s all military-based.

CGQ: They defeated a lot of the relatively open societies like Iran, and Iraq. Iraq is relatively open among the Muslim majority countries. Saudi Arabia and other places are more conservative.

BG: Well, but they are not industrialized countries, any of them. America was industrialized. But first of all they have never launched any substantial war. They came to Europe twice, first WWI, after Europe had already lost millions of lives. WWII was the same, millions and millions of losses. China was the same too; it was a kind of civil war. Russia, too. They [the Americans] always come after the war. They don’t lose a lot of lives to build their militarized power. It’s classic empire. It’s a continuation of the Roman Empire. The institution, the present—the whole structure is like the Roman Empire. And I think now maybe the Chinese are building an empire.

CGQ: China emulates the US in many respects.

BG: But there are actually only two countries that are not controlled by the American military, and that’s Russia and China. So Americans are always nervous about Russia and China.

CGQ: The Tiananmen Square incident influenced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The reality of the Soviet’s dissolution in turn strengthened China’s determination to uphold its own system and course of democratization. Of course, the US played a part in a lot of this.

BG: But the Russians, the crumbling of the Soviet Union came from above. The bureaucracy wanted to have private property; they turned social bureaucracy into the capitalist class. They just divided the country. So it was not an uprising. And in China, changes also came from above. It is a different kind, but …

CGQ: China is terrified of losing control like in the Soviet’s dissolution.

BG: But they had control. They just wanted to get money. And I think the Chinese government already has money.

[Presentation of proposals for the exhibition and for daytime fireworks on Red Square.]

CGQ: My updated idea is to use Tchaikovsky’s piece “October, Song of Autumn” as the soundtrack and main emotional thread of the daytime fireworks that will last for eight to ten minutes. This emotional thread explores the generosity and love that the mother land gifts to its people, and the multitude of experiences that the people create while living on the land. What you see from the animation is an older idea, which has been presented to the Moscow City government.

I envision at the end there will be one hundred seconds of nothing but explosion. The explosion is so loud it will be like a downpour of vibrations, “drenching” the audience. All of the words that one can say about the one hundred years of history are all encompassed in this explosion.

BG: It will be the only instance of celebration of the October Revolution in Russia, yeah? Because it is completely actually forbidden. There will be no official celebration.

CGQ: We prepared two plans. If we know for sure that Putin will ban any mentioning of the Revolution, the producer will then help us to present this concept as a gift for Moscow City Day and the Jubilee Year.

BG: The “1917” number in the sky …

CGQ: Yes, that was the first thing they asked us to take out.

BG: But it should be there.

CGQ: Unless we tell them we’ve taken it out but in reality [we keep it] …

BG: It’s terrible. They absolutely want to erase this history. They don’t want to accept it. It’s great that you’re doing that. And also that you’re making it in a very military way. It’s really like civil war style.

CGQ: Because this city has seen too much gunfire, from the Napoleon invasion to the Nazi invasion. It has experienced too much explosive warfare.

BG: And also civil war. Red Square is always a place for military parades in Moscow, but there is only music, no sound of real explosions. So I think it’s a good commentary!

CGQ: I hope my ideas can be preserved until they are realized. But oftentimes during the long and trying process of getting the project approved, I have to edit my ideas. And sometimes, when the moment [of approval] finally comes, I suddenly lose enthusiasm for my project.

BG: You have to keep the … the date.

CGQ: We have to somehow conceive of a “scheme.” For example, in the end we could launch the number “1917” into the sky. And we could say, pretending to be confused, “Hey, didn’t we cancel that? How come it came back again?” and blame the Chinese pyrotechnicians [laughs]. This is a game. But when an artist wants to play games with politicians, and create an artwork out of a national ceremony, this in itself is a very difficult thing.

BG: But I think for a Chinese artist, maybe it’s not too difficult. I think it’s possible in Russia, because they understand what communism is.

CGQ: [laughs] And now we’ve even found a military supplier—using the resources of the military supplier to realize our plan.

BG: I hope it will be realized. It’s huge …

CGQ: I hope you can come see it in September.

BG: It wasn’t a joke when I said that it’s easier for a Chinese artist to discuss this history. Because it can be always be interpreted as an external perspective on the Russian Revolution, so it does not involve anyone inside Russia itself. And that is easier …

CGQ: To be honest, working on this project, I’m careful not to make many claims directly about Russia. When an artist comes from the outside and has just arrived, he should be very cautious, [and acknowledge] that he does not know enough about Russia, and that what he says might be very childish. So I tend to talk more about my personal experience and personal journey. I can discuss China, but ultimately it is different from discussing Russia. And because of this hesitation, I look forward to more opportunities to talk with Russian people and Russian artists.

BG: You know, in the old times China and Russia were parts of the same state, the Mongolian state.

CGQ: Yeah, the Yuan Dynasty.

BG: And then again parts of the communist empire.

CGQ: The first time was green, the second was red.

BG: But at a certain point in time, which I think was Khrushchev’s time, there was a break. And at that time, China disappeared from the mental screens of Russians. From the Khrushchev period until the end of the Soviet Union, almost nothing was said about China. I have a feeling that in China it was almost the same. The Soviet Union kind of disappeared … it was a very clear divide. So I would say, it was a common history, but since the beginning of the 1960s, there was almost no common history. It’s not clear what happens now because from the American point of view, of course, China and Russia are two enemy countries, and this is a certain kind of common ground. At the same time, contact is not very frequent—doesn’t really happen. When I was in China, I had a feeling that people don’t really think about Russia. So it’s an interesting experiment, because it comes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, as China and Russia shared a common history. From time to time I look from here, also on Russian TV, they’re doing more and more films about history, such as on Chiang Kai-shek, who was also an officer in the Soviet army. His son also; his wife also. So from both sides, Mao (mainland China) and Taiwan are both very connected to the Soviet Union. There are certain periods of history that people have almost completely forgotten. Now it’s interesting to look back.

CGQ: My collection of [Konstantin] Maksimov also includes this period. In the 1950s and ’60s, China was influenced by the Soviet Union, from its social system to urban planning and the development of nuclear power.

BG: I want to see it. Actually, it’s interesting—I participated in some conferences organized by Chinese art academies. Also starting in the ’90s, all the old artists who painted socialist realist paintings, all of them said they were followers of Andy Warhol and had never seen any Soviet realist paintings. Even if they spent five years living and studying in Moscow. I asked them: “How is this possible?” They said, “No, we only stayed in our hotels or went to the streets. We never saw any socialist realist paintings.” It was a very strange psychic separation. They didn’t want to relate to the history at all, they wanted to be part of the American road.

CGQ: From 1955 to 1957, Maksimov came to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. The Chinese picked twenty-four of the best painters in China, some of them teachers at the local art academies. He taught them for two years, then he went back to the Soviet Union. All of these students went on to become heads of art academies or department heads of oil painting. But because Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, they couldn’t say that their teacher was a Soviet.

BG: Exactly. And they still completely suppress that. That is very strange, because the Cultural Revolution is over, the conflict is over. For many years now. They are speaking totally freely, and yet they still …

CGQ: I did a bit of research into this period. Because later, in the late ’70s, when China opened up again, these leaders of the art world—the students of Maksimov—frequented countries like the US and France on cultural exchange trips as delegates. They were greeted by the French minister of culture, they visited many Western museums, and they felt that Soviet art was still at quite a distance from Western art. Then later, when they also visited Russia, most of them didn’t want to visit their teacher Maksimov. I’ve collected over two hundred pieces from him, mainly from his time in China. I wanted to collect stories from this period of history.

At the 1999 Venice Biennale, I created Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard by inviting some of the original artists behind the classic socialist-realist sculpture Rent Collection Courtyard along with some new-generation sculptors to recreate this piece on-site in Venice. I wanted the artists and their destiny to become part of the artwork, and to reveal the relationship between artists and their time and politics. This project received a lot of criticism in China and caused a lot of controversies. Later, when I exhibited my collection of Maksimov’s work in China—my first solo exhibition there—I titled it “Maksimov: A Master in Chinese Art History.”

Some people were suspicious and resented that I was once again going to use Chinese art history to “cause topics.” I brought Maksimov’s work back to the museum of the Central Academy of Arts, where he taught. During the installation, the Academy’s director and deans secretly went to see the paintings at night so they wouldn’t be seen doing that. As they saw these paintings, which they once watched Maksimov creating while standing next to him, they were deeply touched, and felt that they had wronged me somewhat.

I then suggested that they hold a symposium, gathering the twenty-four students around the country who hadn’t been all together at the same time since their teacher left. Later, at the symposium, they started off by standing in a minute’s silence to pay tribute to their teacher, because Maksimov had passed away by then. A lot of them were crying. I was also very moved at that symposium. Some of them couldn’t understand: they were Maksimov’s students, who specialize in oil painting; I made conceptual and contemporary art—why was I doing this? Plus, they’re all wealthier than me, and are totally capable of purchasing their teacher’s works. But it was I who did this …

BG: That’s a good story.

CGQ: Maksimov’s may have been a story in the arts, but stories like this happened in other fields: economics, architecture, military, in everything. A lot of Chinese officers trained in the Soviet Union. Even Jiang Zemin studied in the USSR.

BG: I think next time we should speak about how memory works. Because it [the project] is about memory, and the mechanism of memory. It’s precisely the structure of memory: at certain levels people remember, are ready to cry, but at some other level, they forget. It’s very strange, layers of memory—at every layer it functions in a different way. I think it’s both useful [to discuss memory] in Russia and China, both societies. At a personal level, an emotional level, a social level—it’s all different.

CGQ: I’d be glad to.


Translation for Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese-English): Xinran Yuan and Lin King, Cai Studio. Transcribed by Cai Studio.

Image: Boris Groys visiting Cai Guo-Qiang’s Studio. New York, 2017. Photo by Lin King. Courtesy Cai Studio.