Cai Guo-Qiang on the weird and wonderful art of China's rural working class

Text by Mumu

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Wang Wei in his airplane. By day, he is a beautician. 


I have always been a peasant’s son,” Cai Guo-Qiang says. “I am a peasant through and through.” Cai’s background has been crucial to his success. In 1999, for his Venice Biennale Golden Lion-winning piece Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard, he invited the artist Long Xu-Li and several young sculptors to recreate Rent Collection Courtyard, an iconic social-realist installation originally made by members of the Sichuan Fine arts institute, including Long, in 1965. It had been “planned and executed for the [Chinese] government,” Cai has explained, “to publicise the tragic existence of the exploited peasant class before the liberation.” The new piece was as much performance as it was sculpture, and as forward-looking as it was nostalgic: Cai has described it as “an act to be remade anew with each performance”.

In 2010, his second peasant-themed project opened at the Rockbund art Museum in Shanghai. Peasant Da Vincis brings together work by 10 rural Chinese who surely never imagined that their home-made submarine, flying saucer, helicopter or other wildly ambitious construction would be exhibited in a national museum.

MUMU Why do you give so much attention to the peasants?
CAI QUO-QIANG I see myself in them. I was born in a small town in China. Chinese cultures, especially folk cultures, have influenced me immensely. From feng shui to Chinese medicine, folk culture has inspired many of my works. around the time of the olympic Games, I worked with many migrant workers, from laying down the foundation for the Bird’s Nest stadium to the final cleaning and tidying. It was then that I started to notice their existence again. Of course, the idea of using them as my theme has matured with my collection of their artworks, which started about six years ago.

M The German scholar Konrad Köstlin once said that folklore was a shawl that showed modern people, in a pleasant way, what they once looked like. What would you like “modern people” to see with Peasant Da Vincis
CG [Laughs] The peasants I met were far more interesting than I had imagined. They are eccentrics among peasants, but once they accomplish something, other people realise they are extraordinary: either extremely smart and courageous, or with outstanding individual spirit. individual spirit is an important thing. Whether we are examining thousands of years of past civilization, or current society, an increasingly important trend is to acknowledge individuals’ opinions and actions. Everyone can do his own thing, and everyone has a thing he wants to do. Many of the objects made by the peasants, such as airplanes and submarines, don’t actually function. Still, these inventors are very determined to pursue their dreams, even if such dreams seem unrealistic to us. This persistent spirit is something that many city dwellers can learn from.
  The essence of the folk cultures is a natural beauty, like that of the climate and the environment. It can also be seen as a cultural heritage that people pass down through generations. From the folk cultures, you can see and smell the earth; you can witness such cultures melt into people’s daily memory, lending them enough strength to live through this life.

For the peasants, techniques are the same as power, whereas for the artists, identity is a different kind of power. How do you view the relationship between the peasants’ techniques and your identity as an artist
CG Before I knew them, they had already been reported on by much of the media. Some of them had even become star-like figures. What can our co-operation bring to them? In my opinion, it has brought them into serious social discussions, and has reflected their genuine experiences of the modernisation of our society – their sufferings and frustrations, as well as their contributions, and a certain kind of glory.
  The attention I have given them is different from the media’s coverage, because the latter sought only novelty. Later, I saw that even mainstream, official newspapers such as the Beijing Daily and the Wenhui Daily were devoting a lot of space to this exhibition, and were discussing what the peasants had achieved. It was then that I thought that maybe what i was doing was useful in some way. After all, the exhibition is not just an occasion for people to see that peasants make airplanes, or how beautifully Cai Guo-Qiang hangs them.
  In Peasant Da Vincis, I have used three slogans: “Don’t Know How to Land”, “Taking off is Not important” and “Peasants Make a Better City” [each slogan is presented on a giant billboard, or on the side of the museum itself]. The third corresponds to “Better City, Better Life”, a topic we often discuss nowadays. “Better City, Better Life” refers specifically to the Shanghai Expo, while “Peasants Make a Better City” is a response to our national modernisation process.

M What I am most curious about is the inventors’ reaction, once they knew their works would enter the domain of “art”.
CG I had already asked them, “Do you think your work is a piece of art?” one of the peasants gave an honest answer. He said, “I think it looked more like a piece of art when I was still building the model. Once it was completed, it turned into a product rather than an art piece.” They think like this because they want to make something with a function and a purpose. Besides, they know that the things artists make cannot fly. I also asked them, “Do you sometimes feel like an artist?” They answered, “No, not really.” They feel more like scientists or fantasists who are exploring the truth, studying mechanics and the possibility of escaping gravity. I, on the other hand, see their creativity from an artistic perspective: like artists, they are attempting the impossible.

M But you didn’t get in touch with them as an artist.
CG No. I never volunteered that I was an artist, that the thing I was organising was an art exhibition, or that they were taking part in an artistic event. After talking to me, some of them thought I was from the media, and some thought I was just an incredible person who asked awesome questions.

I remember when Tao Xiang-Li said that his machine could dive, walk and fly. I asked him whether it was the first of its kind in the world. He said yes! No one on earth had thought of it yet. I said, “Do you know, in the olden days, only Chinese had thought of this idea.” He was shocked, and asked me who. I said it was our ancestors: the ancient Chinese thought of a thing that can dive, fly and run, and named it “dragon”. He suddenly felt that he was talking to someone with fascinating ideas, and that satisfied me. I am just an ordinary person. There’s no need to flaunt my artistic identity wherever I go in China, as if we were the real artists and they were merely followers who had the great honour to get into museums and exhibitions. After all, why should museums matter to them? Maybe it is already interesting enough for them to see the beautiful fields of rape flowers in the countryside. If there is an airplane flying low above the fields, then it will be even more artistic.

Tank _vol 7issue 151Left, the headquarters of the “Flying Saucer Madman”, Du Wen-Da. Right, this airplane, by Cao Zheng-Shu, is based on the proportions of a pigeon. Cao sleeps in the factory with his airplane every night. 

M Some of the airplanes in the show have never taken off, but you don’t seem to care much about this. Are you presenting an idealistic version of folk cultures?
CG I am an artist, and the things artists make are mostly useless. In ancient times, people worked hard to hunt and battle with animals. Some of them would paint things on the wall with red soil and animal blood. Are these paintings useful? Nevertheless, it is through these useless things left behind by our predecessors that we manage to decipher the aesthetics and emotions of every era. Without such things, we wouldn’t be able to understand their worries and dreams. Even if the peasants’ airplanes cannot fly, we are still moved by the idealism that shines through. After all, idealism is inherent in art. It is no longer difficult to make airplanes that can take off or machines that can fly. The important thing is to have that courage, those dreams, so that one’s spirit can soar – that is a truly remarkable achievement.
  Sooner or later, I hope our country will recognise these inventors and offer their creations a special home. We have so many inspiring aviation exhibitions and competitions. We should do the same for the peasants’ inventions. When every member of a nation becomes expressive, distinctive and interesting, the nation’s wisdom, productivity and creativity can also be realised to the greatest extent. It is the most amazing thing when a country can achieve something extraordinary through collective power.

M Wu Yu-Lu, another peasant artist, used to make robots as a hobby. Now he seems to have become a professional. He is a favourite of the media and is the face of a brand. Will Peasant Da Vincis bring your peasants the same opportunities?
CG I don’t know. We can’t overestimate ourselves simply because we can bring in economic or commercial power and improve these people’s material life. Our pursuit is on an artistic and metaphysical level, so the ultimate purpose is to allow them to see possibilities for their own future, and to discover the value of their life and their creativity. as for the rest, we don’t know anything. We can only say that we have had a dialogue with them and have walked some distance with them. Afterwards, everyone will be in his own different world, with opportunities and limitations defined by time and space.

Still, isn’t it great that Wu Yu-Lu can represent a brand and improve his life, and that his robots can earn lots of money? On what grounds can we ask him to be a poor peasant forever, struggling in the countryside, holding on to his dreams and being labelled a madman for it? We shouldn’t force other people to live or develop according to our own wishes.

M I’ve heard that you have ordered more robots from Wu Yu-Lu, and that his live studio will be part of the exhibition. Will the presence of a live studio pull the show’s most idealistic elements back into reality?
CG No, I don’t think so. We intellectuals try to get them play the saints. We want them to keep pursuing their dreams, but at the same time stay poor and non-commercial, as if this would make them genuinely great. In my opinion, this is way too much to ask. Do we no longer have anything to discuss with him once he turns commercial or becomes a star who represents some brand? For this exhibition, we have invited his whole family to the venue, including his wife, his two sons and his two lovely daughters-in-law. The six of them will make robots there and demonstrate them to the audience. What do you think the audience will see? They will see that these people are humorous and interesting, and that they are close to one another. Such things are beautiful and spiritual too. Why should we omit them?

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Li Yu-Ming’s Ray No.1. Li has made many more submarines, some of them modelled on the shape of a fish; in order to finance them all, he has mortgaged his house. 


M In Peasant Da Vincis, you have three identities: the artist, the collector and the curator. Which identity excites you the most?
CG Being a collector is a long-term thing, so the excitement lasts for longer. The curator role is relatively short, so it can be seen as a heightened experience. As an artist, I hesitate a lot: if I don’t do anything, the exhibition will become a fair for folk inventions, but if I get too involved, their inventions will turn into mere materials, and the peasants themselves will disappear.

fter much experimentation, I have finally defined my “artist” role as a storyteller – or, rather, I would like to invent a new method, telling stories with art. Some people tell stories to others orally. Novelists write them down. I have decided to tell stories with contemporary art. In my art space, the heroes are the peasants, and the inventions are their submarines, airplanes and UFOs. My job is to distill their creative experience into an art form, telling it in such a way that people can see their spirit, their dreams and the poetic elements within. Through the entire process, what excites me the most is this role, the role of telling stories with art.

M You said in the preface, “I am collecting their dreams, and in these dreams, I see myself.” Can you elaborate?
CG Back in the 1960s, when I was still a child, the American spaceship landed on the moon. I was about 10 years old at the time, and was rather short and thin. Of course I would love to have visited outer space, but I did not have a very strong build, so I felt I would never manage to explore the universe, because it would be even more physically demanding than being a pilot. After I grew up, my dream was partially realised through art, because art makes you feel that you can bring together the East and the West, and transcend the past, present and future. Art becomes your wormhole, through which you can reach the universe. §