Cai Guo-Qiang on Chinese Peasants, Instagram, and his Personal Chef

Finding parallels between the modernization of China and Brazil, Cai Guo-Qiang has re-imagined his “Peasant Da Vincis” project, originally designed to honor the contributions of peasant inventors of China, to suit the landscape of Brazil. The new iteration, “Da Vincis do Povo,” began in Brasília, traveled to São Paulo, and currently holds court in Rio de Janeiro, where the whimsical, scrap material inventions of peasants are displayed alongside Cai’s large-scale gunpowder drawings. On the last leg of the exhibition, Artsy’s Christine Kuan caught up with Cai to discuss the response of the work in Brazil versus China, the challenges and pleasures of working in Brazil, and the many ways the exhibition has brought together Brazilian culture, humanities, and society.

Christine Kuan: “Peasant Da Vincis” exhibits the fantastic and wild inventions of peasants in China. It was first shown at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai in 2010 during the World Expo. What is special about what you have done with “Peasant Da Vincis” in the Brasília, São Paulo, and now Rio de Janeiro?

Cai Guo-Qiang: I presented “Peasant Da Vincis” in Shanghai, after I had completed my participation in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies. China became a country running on collective power, and hosting international events such as the World Exposition was no longer an issue. Rockbund Art Museum happened to invite me for their inaugural exhibition, coinciding with the Shanghai World Exposition. As the World Exposition put technological advancements and national pride at the forefront, consequently disregarding individual voices, I decided to display my collection of whimsical objects created by independent country-dwellers in China from scrap materials, which I had been building for six years at the time.

In Brazil, the nation’s path to modernization is similar to that of China’s. “Da Vincis do Povo” [“da Vincis of the people”] brings together Brazilian nature, culture, humanities, and society, adding Brazilian humor and artistry in the reconfigured installation. What makes “Da Vincis do Povo” differ from “Peasant Da Vincis” in Shanghai is the participatory aspect of the three-city tour. In Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, children of each city have participated in the workshop UFOcinas, where children of all ages would come to Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, where the exhibition is hosted, to use everyday objects and build robots, airplanes, trains, submarines, boats, etc. in a fashion similar to that of the peasant inventors whose works are on display nearby. The children’s creations are shown in the galleries as “Children Da Vincis”.

There are also gunpowder drawings in “Da Vincis do Povo”, which were created specifically for Brazil on site with the help of local volunteers in Brasília. The large-scale drawings depict the Carnival Rehearsal in the city’s samba schools, as well as the birds and flowers of Brazil with guidance from a Brazilian ornithologist and botanist. The exhibition also includes a special collaboration with the Brazilian public, inviting everyone to submit what they consider most representative of Brazilian culture via Instagram for my reference. From the 3,000 submissions, I chose the eight most remarkable references and created the gunpowder drawing series “INSTAMISSION”. The project allowed me to interact with people whom I would never otherwise have encountered.

CK: Both China and Brazil have dense populations, mixed with rich and poor, and are also two of the fastest growing art markets today. Your work is radical, yet rooted in history and tradition, aesthetically beautiful and also politically and socially charged. What has been the popular response to your work in China versus Brazil?

CGQ: In China, peasants have always been marginalized in history, whether before or after the economic reform. The Shanghai World Exposition’s tagline was “Better City, Better Life”; whereas in China, the prosperity and modernization of coastal cities were made possible by peasants from the countryside. Therefore for the Shanghai “Peasant Da Vincis” I came up with the exhibition slogan “Peasants—Making a Better City, a Better Life” to make visible the contribution of the nameless individuals behind the glittering façades of urban life, to allow discussion of the value of peasants in China’s rapid growth, and to magnify the contrast between the pursuit of personal dreams represented in the exhibition and the collective society these individuals live in.

In Brazil, it seems that the notion of “peasant” or “farmer” hardly exists anymore and the title of the exhibition was thus translated as “Da Vincis do Povo,” literally meaning “Da Vincis of the people” to avoid confusion. The general reaction from the audience is more focused on the charm of imagination and craftsmanship that permeates the exhibition. They also show an interest in the universal childhood aspirations for adventure.

CK: What have been the biggest challenges and pleasures of working in Brazil?

CGQ: Every city holds its own charm and each gallery space presents different architectural and technical challenges, and thus in each city I reconfigured the installations specifically for the venue. In Brasília, I took the aircraft carrier, submarines, and flying machines into the nature in an open-air pavilion. In São Paulo, influenced by the pedestrian downtown area where white-collar traders and homeless people stroll the same streets, I hoisted the flying machines and submarines up in mid-air on the streets. During the exhibition, the protests and riots in front of the city hall were only a couple of blocks away, and I was worried and excited at the same time. I was anxious because the crowd could have destroyed the objects that were not protected by the four walls of the galleries, while I anticipated the protestors to speed away with the “inventions”. In Rio, I visited the favela Santa Marta on the hill where Christ the Redeemer stands, where houses are stacked on top of each other along the slope of the hill. During my initial visit, I saw children flying kites on their roofs, overlooking the luxury condominiums at the foot of the hill. I came up with the project Kites in the Night Sky, inviting children from Santa Marta, Padre Miguel, and Parque Madureira to paint plain white kites with neon paint, and taking them to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas to fly the kites at night. The experience felt like time travel, returning me to my youth as I ran and looked up to the sky.

CK: I hear you have a wonderful chef at your New York Cai Studio. What are some of your favorite Chinese dishes? And do you have any favorite Brazilian foods?

CGQ: What I like the best from my chef Ahuan at the studio is the soups she stews. My absolute favorite is made with fish, papaya, and peanut. The lunch served at my studio is no doubt the best Chinese food one can ever find in New York. No Chinese restaurant in the city can achieve the same natural, simple, familial, yet unpretentious and elegant result. While in Brazil I really liked feijoada, the Brazilian black bean stew served with rice. It really gave me comfort during my time away from home.

CK: You have written wonderful posts on Artsy; one about your father was particularly poetic. What is your favorite book and what are you currently reading?

CGQ: I have not been reading as much as I used to, but Carl Sagan’s Cosmos remains the one book that I never get tired of reading over and over again. At the moment I am reading about Hong Kong film industry and the religion and family structure in Saudi Arabia, in preparation for upcoming projects.

CK: You participate in so many art events around the world. Which artists are you watching right now?

CGQ: There many artists that I take an interest in, but off the top of my head right now, I find Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s Under Discussion (2005) brilliant. It shows a boat made from an upturned table attached with a motor. I also really enjoyed Imran Qureshi’s blood-like installation on The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Peasant Da Vincis (Da Vincis do Povo)” is on view in Rio De Janeiro at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and Museu dos Correios through September 23, 2013.

Explore the exhibition on Artsy.