Blast Off
Tatler Singapore|November 2020
Cai Guo-Qiang has wowed audiences around the world with his explosive pyrotechnic art—and he couldn’t have done it without the help of one of his biggest champions, Wendi Murdoch
Oliver Giles

Wendi Murdoch is passionate about a great many things—fashion, food and film among them. She’s also obsessive about technology, and can list from memory facts and figures about the hottest start-ups from Silicon Valley to Shanghai. But most of all, Murdoch loves artists—none more so than Cai Guo-Qiang. “I have many great pieces from Cai,” she says in her rapid-fire English. “They’re in my living room, my bedroom, my hallway. They’re in my home in China, my home in the US. I love to be with his art. It makes me happy.” She pauses. “I’m very honoured to have them.”

Cai, sitting next to her, beams. We’re gathered around a table in Cai’s studio in New York’s East Village shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps into the city. This immaculate, airy space is where Cai, whose unlikely medium is gunpowder, dreams up the spectacular pyrotechnic displays that have made him a global sensation since the mid-1990s when the Asian Cultural Council invited him to take part in a residency programme in the US. It’s also where many of his collaborations with Murdoch—who was first a friend, then a collector of his art and is now one of his greatest patrons—begin. Here, at this table, they first discussed Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a documentary Murdoch produced about his decades-long dream to create a 500-meter-tall ladder of fireworks that would briefly connect earth to the heavens. The film took the Sundance Film Festival by storm, was bought by Netflix and released in 2016.

Following the success of Sky Ladder, Murdoch has introduced Cai to a constant stream of art collectors, museum directors and friends who may be able to support his career. “Whether she’s in New York or somewhere else, Wendi is always surrounded by friends,” says Cai. “She brings people together.”

The pandemic has halted the normal whirlwind of events Murdoch hosts, but she has kept in regular touch with Cai. “We have weekly Zoom calls,” she says in a subsequent email. “And we were able to meet for lunch with social distancing over the summer. Of course, for a true artist like Cai, periods of solitude are very important.”

It has been particularly critical this year because Cai has been preparing for three major exhibitions: he humbly notes an exhibition is planned to open this winter at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing to mark the palace’s 600th anniversary, and another show is in the works for soon after—potentially at M+ in Hong Kong. Murdoch, who jumps in whenever Cai is being self-effacing, quickly adds another project that has the potential to be seen around the world. “He’s involved in the Winter Olympics in China in 2022,” she says. Cai created the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but says he can’t yet reveal his exact role in the 2022 games. “He’s so modest,” murmurs Murdoch to Cai’s wife, Hong Hong.

Cai’s modesty was the first thing Murdoch noticed when they met. “It was in 2002 in London at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly,” she recalls. “Cai was doing this really cool project there, an explosion project, and our mutual friend, Arnold Chan, a famous lighting designer, introduced us. I was blown away by how beautiful Cai’s art is. And as a person, he’s so calm and Zen-like.”

The feeling was mutual. “At the very beginning, I immediately felt that she was like an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while,” says Cai. “Wendi’s personality is like gunpowder.”

Murdoch laughs and asks, “Bubbly?” Cai thinks for a moment. “Very energetic,” he says. From Cai, there is no greater compliment.

The 62-year-old artist took up painting as a teenager in Quanzhou, first working with western oil paints, gouache and watercolours. But it was a few years later, when he was in his mid-20s, that he found his true calling—making art by using fire and gunpowder to burn patterns into his oil paintings. His early experiments were erratic and the results unpredictable, but this lack of control appealed to Cai, who has long been drawn to the capricious powers of earth, water, air and fire, and the conflicting emotions of awe and fear these elements inspire.

By 1989, he was thinking beyond paper and canvas and planning “explosion events”. For his first, Human Abode: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 1, he erected a yurt by a river in Tokyo, where he was living at the time, and blew it up. As the work’s title suggests, Cai wasn’t just hoping to entertain people on Earth—he hoped the light and noise of his explosion would also capture the attention of what Cai describes as the “unseen world”, an unknowable universe of gods, spirits and aliens who might be looking down on our planet from elsewhere in the cosmos.

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