Savannah O’Leary on Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang

The introduction of contemporary Chinese art into the Western art world in the 1990s brought with it controversial questions surrounding the concept of the Diaspora artist. The Chinese artist living abroad occupies a space in which influences from Chinese traditions confront contemporary experiences in a totally different cultural context. The role of the Diaspora artist, therefore, becomes confusing. Is the expatriate artist equal to his mainland counterparts? Does he deserve to represent contemporary Chinese art, and can he accurately do so? Discussions about authenticity, audience and authority become central to these questions.

Cai Guo-Qiang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, but has lived and worked abroad since 1986. In 2012, he was awarded the Premium Imperiale, which recognizes lifetime achievement in the arts not covered by the Nobel Prize. His complex and confusing identity is evident in the prominent works he created upon arrival to the United States, his award winning installation at the Venice Biennial in 1999, and his work for the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Artists living abroad generally deal with very different themes than those artists working in mainland China, and the most prominent works that Cai Guo-Qiang produced upon his arrival to America show how his experience in the West highly influenced his artistic agenda.

His first American exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1996 included his large-scale work Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, a massive Chinese dragon made out of sheepskin bags and Toyota car engines. The sheepskin bags referenced the tools used by ancient Mongol Warriors as they advanced towards Europe, while the engines referred to the successful penetration of a Japanese car company into Western markets. The title of the work referenced the classic Western tale “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and Cai Guo-Qiang has explained that this play on words suggests that “it might be a dragon that’s coming instead of the wolf, and that it may arrive when you’re least prepared.”

The work is a commentary on the shift in the balance of power that became a threat in the mid 1990s, and is an excellent example of how Diaspora artists become concerned with China’s interaction with other cultures, rather than problems relating solely to China. While much of Cai’s work confronts the experience of living between two worlds, a recurring question for Diaspora artists is whether they can claim to equally represent Chinese culture. Is Cai Guo-Qiang a Chinese artist, or is he just an artist who happens to be Chinese? Cai himself has been quoted saying, “I often feel that I’m in a state of sway…On one side of the pendulum is my own cultural history and background, as it faces a new era and new challenges…On the other side of my experience is the West; its concerns have become mine and I can’t help but address its dilemmas as well. Sometimes these two sides oppose each other; sometimes they overlap.”

The credibility of Chinese artists abroad becomes an even more interesting discussion when one considers how the geographical conception of art, and its site of reception, affects an audience’s reaction. In North America, where the average patron of the arts is relatively ignorant of the complexity of Chinese contemporary art, the conceptual premise of a work is often overlooked, misunderstood, or simplified. When Chinese contemporary art began to penetrate the Western art world, Cynical Realism and Political Pop were the most popular genres to be exhibited because the West was happy to exhibit art relating to political dissent in the East. Chinese artists with a unique and individual voice were ignored or overlooked.

Cai was disappointed by the reception of his work Borrowing Your Enemies Arrows,which was part of the 1998 exhibition “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” at the Museum of Modern Art. The work was a wooden boat suspended from the ceiling, struck with 3,000 arrows, and included a waving Chinese flag at the rear. While Cai described the piece as a work on Chinese philosophy, the Western media described it as “nationalistic” and “pitting Chinese against Western culture.”

One of the most controversial moments in Cai Guo-Qiang’s career occurred when he received the prestigious Leone d’Oro prize for his installation Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard. Cai Guo-Qaing was lauded for his reconstruction of an iconic, propagandist sculpture from the Cultural Revolution. Cai’s intention, as described in the catalogue accompanying his piece, was “not only to emphasize how much Chinese art has changed [since the Cultural revolution] but also [to] underline how the temporary and physical displacement of a work changes its meaning.” Many Chinese took offense. Cai was immediately threatened with lawsuits claiming that he had breached copyright laws in his replication of a previous artwork. These attacks were related to the widespread belief among Mainland artists and critics that Cai had betrayed China by practicing in the West and exploited Chinese stereotypes to gain popularity. ANew York Times article by Erik Eckholm noted that the Chinese press described Cai as a “green card artist” and a “banana man – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”

If Cai was rejected by his native homeland in 1999, he was certainly welcomed back in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. He was put in charge of all the visual and special effects work for the opening ceremonies – including a phenomenal fireworks display. Cai is famous for his work with gunpowder, and his fascination with the substance is related to its role in Chinese history. Although it may seem obvious, it is important to recognize that not just anyfireworks specialist could have organized the visual effects for China’s opening ceremony. This ceremony was a patriotic event for China, and everyone involved had to be authentically Chinese. As an artist who had originally fled China in search of artistic freedom, Cai was now being welcomed back to China and placed on a pedestal.

Just as the Beijing Olympics marked a shift in the international balance of power, Cai’s work at the opening ceremonies also solidified his role as a contemporary artist capable of using traditional Chinese methods at a global event. As the West’s understanding of Chinese culture becomes more informed, and China begins to embrace the international stardom of some of its artists, the role of the Diaspora artist appears to be ever more blurred as the old mindset between artistic communities in the East and West disintegrate.

Photo by Ed Schipul, Creative Commons

Savannah O’Leary is a junior at New York University. Contact her at