Home on a Matchbox

Cai Guo-Qiang Studio
May 16, 2013 6:35PM

When I was small, I was always made to sit on my father's lap and roll his cigarettes. My deepest memory of him involves him puffing out clouds of cigarette smoke and drawing landscapes on matchboxes with his pen. The matchbox landscapes had mountains, rivers, the sea, seagulls, boats, waterfalls, and clouds. Sometimes one matchbox would be one individual drawing; sometimes many matchboxes composed a small scroll. I used to ask him what place he was painting, and he always replied, “Home.”

Many years later, I went to where my family once lived, to sweep my grandfather’s grave, only to discover that the reality was completely different from the scenes my father had painted all those years. My family came from a small fishing village outside Quanzhou. While it’s not exactly flat, there’s only one small clump of hills. My grandfather was buried under a large banyan tree where the shoreline arcs inland and forms a small bay. There were only a few houses, a few boats, and a few seagulls. The place Father painted on the matchboxes had towering mountains that ranged for miles and miles, surrounded by wisps of clouds and mists; down on the sea, thousands of sails bobbed, everything composed together, a beautiful, picturesque scenery.

As I grew older and became an artist myself, I began to understand my father gradually. His was a particularly Chinese, poetic expression of the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, encompassing a boundless horizon in a mere square inch. His emotional world is in fact far wider and deeper than a small matchbox.

Cai Guo-Qiang Studio