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Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has spent decades using gunpowder as a medium for paintings and performances. Although the explosions are momentary and ephemeral, the records of these events are works of art collected by museums around the world. When Cai began to wonder about the longevity of this unusual material, he turned to the scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI).

In this episode, the artist discusses his relationship with this unorthodox medium and is joined by GCI scientists Rachel Rivenc and Tom Learner to explore the research collaboration he is undertaking with the institute.

More to Explore

Cai Guo-Qiang’s website
GCI Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

CAI GUO-QIANG: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: I really hope that my dialogue, this decades-long dialogue with gunpowder, will not be just in one plus one equals two. Rather, it will lead to infinity.

CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and Getty Conservation Institute scientists Tom Learner and Rachel Rivenc about their collaborative project to study the material properties and poetic qualities of Cai’s gunpowder drawings.

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, China. He lived and worked in Japan from 1986 to 1995, and currently lives and works in New York. For three decades he has used gunpowder as a medium in drawings, paintings, and pyrotechnic displays of great beauty. Recently, he became interested in the longevity of his materials and in understanding how they change over time. For the past few years he has been working with Tom Learner, head of the Getty Conservation Institute’s Science department, and Rachel Rivenc, associate scientist in the Modern and Contemporary materials group, also at the GCI, to understand better the material properties of his work.

In this episode, and with the help of a translator, I speak with Cai about his development and intentions as an artist and what working with Tom and Rachel has revealed to him about his work. With Rachel and Tom, I discuss how this project began, the GCI’s research process, and some of their findings about Cai’s unusual materials.

This conversation took place in the GCI conservation laboratory while Cai was visiting the Getty.

I’m in a scientific laboratory of the Getty Conservation Institute with artist Cai Guo-Qiang, scientists Tom Learner and Rachel Rivenc, of the Getty Conservation Institute. Rachel is leading a study into the technique and material of Cai’s art, which, as they involve gunpowder and fire, is no small matter. So thank you, Cai, Tom, and Rachel for agreeing to sit for this podcast episode. Cai, you’ve worked with gunpowder as your medium for the greater part of three decades. What attracted you to gunpowder? Was it its historic association with ancient China, where it was associated, I’m told, with the pursuit of immortality? Or is it the visual effects? That is, much like pastel, only more dramatic.

CAI GUO-QIANG: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, thank you for arranging this interview with me. I am here with a very complicated identity. I’m both an artist coming back to see my old friends, my old friends being these my work[s] and tests here. And I’m also here to consult [a] doctor, doctor being you, as a specialist at Getty.

I feel I’m in a romantic relationship, with gunpowder as my medium. Partly because I never fully understand its potential. And it’s never possible to completely make it mine. As a result, it’s sort of a torture for me, and also makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable all the time. But at the same time, it has been appealing to me. The biggest appeal may be its being out of my complete control.

So I’ve been thinking how I can make full use of the nature of gunpowder, to make it most natural and to let it bring along miracles. So I really hope that my dialogue, this decades long dialogue with gunpowder, will not be just in one plus one equals two. Rather, it will lead to infinity. So I guess these are some of the reasons why gunpowder has appealed to me all these years and why I never give it up.

CUNO: When did you first see the gunpowder explosion? I mean, was it as a child.

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, I guess it’s when I was a little boy. In my hometown, when it comes to the funeral or someone giving birth to a baby or the special occasions like wedding ceremonies, people will all explode firecrackers. Especially when someone gives birth to a little boy. Then they will do extra amount of firecrackers, just to show their joy and excitement.

I was a little boy. So when I was born, I must have been born with the explosion of lots and lots of firecrackers.

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well of course, the first time when I officially started working with gunpowder as an artist, maybe in the year 1984. At the time I first worked with mini rockets, which would burn holes on canvases. Later, I started opening up the firecrackers and to take out the gunpowder within, to be exploded on canvas.

In my early time, I often exploded gunpowder, which then resulted in holes in the canvas, which for us back then was a great waste. And then my grandma saw that. One day she just put out the fire with a rag. That taught me that it’s not only important to know how to start a fire; it’s equally important to know how to the stop the fire.

So as a result, my grandma later often [told] her friends that, “Well, you know that my grandson Cai, he learned everything about handling gunpowder from me.”

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: And later, I would often go to the countryside and to visit the firecrackers factory. I know where they are because some of my friends and classmates, after class they would help fabricate the firecrackers for the factories. Well, of course, they do that for a living, but that helped me understand where the factories are. As a result, I would often go to the factory to purchase, say, two to three kilograms of gunpowder, pack them with newspapers, and hold it close to my heart.

It was actually quite dangerous because the gunpowder back then, it was not mixed with as much stabilizer as the current-day gunpowder would do. Which means, with a little bit friction, there may be an explosion. But I didn’t know that, or I didn’t care. So I often just would hold that much amount of gunpowder with me, taking the bus back home, with lots of people next to me smoking. [laughter]

CUNO: Well, let me back up a minute. So take us from your childhood to art school, and then tell us about your training in art school.

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, I probably should talk a little bit about my upbringing in my hometown. My father was a traditional Chinese calligrapher and painter. My hometown, Quanzhou, is a small town. My father would often organize some salons at home, inviting lots of his artist and cultural figure friends to gather at home and talk about art.

So essentially, my upbringing involved a lot of traditional Chinese culture. And in fact, lots of my father’s friends, they are passionate about that as well. Especially when they faced the not so satisfying reality of the China back then, talking all day about traditional Chinese culture provided a great time-space capsule for them to imagine about the glorious past about this country.

Some of my father’s friends actually also practiced Western oil paintings and pastels. But I was especially against those who practiced traditional Chinese paintings and more keen about the Western style. And later, in order to avoid joining my peers to participate in the then very popular movement, which is for the youngsters to go to the countryside or to go to the field to work just like peasants.

So in order to avoid that, I participated in the Chairman Mao’s thought propaganda troupe. In the troupe, I studied painting and I also learned and practiced kung fu every day. It’s also through this experience I later officially joined a theater troupe. When I worked in the theater troupe, I started painting for the set. As a result, I got a chance to use the allocated budget to purchase pigment for me to paint the set, and also saving a little bit for me to paint my own works.

CUNO: So we’ve learned about Cai’s childhood and of his exposure to works of art and the context in which you began to study works of art or to make works of art. How did you get involved with Cai in this project? Tom?

LEARNER: It was a wonderful moment actually of everything coming together at the right time. The GCI has, for about ten years, in establishing its large modern and contemporary art research…

CUNO: [over Learner] We should say it’s the Getty Conservation Institute, GCI.

LEARNER: Absolutely. And as part of that initiative, the Modern Paints project has been the longest standing of those projects. It’s something that we started on very early on in this project, ’cause it was the sort of root of what was needed in research was more straightforward. So it doesn’t take much thinking, if you wander around a contemporary art gallery, to see the extraordinary range of materials, objects, thoughts that have been presented as art, to understand how difficult it is to think about how you might establish a research agenda on contemporary art.

But with paintings and sculpture, it’s obviously very, very contemporary and new things are happening; but it’s still based on, you know, in terms of paintings, a flat surface, often canvas on a stretcher. So as part of that Modern Paints project, we had been looking for people who had done in-depth studies on a number of artists, to write publications.

We have this series of books called The Artist Materials Series. And artists such as de Kooning and Fontana, Riopelle, Hofmann and many others that are in the works, they’ve all tended to be sort of modern mid-century, often North American, European painters.

CUNO: Basically oil painting and acrylic, I assume.

LEARNER: Basically oil painting and acrylic, exactly. We do have some in the work. We’re moving more into sculpture, and we’re desperate to move away from the all-male gendered artists being looked at. But as part of that discussion of thinking where we should take this series, there was a real interest to move away from the region of just North America and Europe. And in fact, to move much more into the present, into the more contemporary arena, and to work with a living artist.

So as part of that discussion—and I have to say, I’m not just saying this because Cai is here, but Cai Guo-Qiang came up as one of the top contenders of, wouldn’t it be amazing to do a research project on his materials and processes? So that was all going on.

And then at some point right in the middle of that discussion, I got a phone call from Glenn Wharton, who is a professor at NYU in New York. He had been the time-based media conservator at MoMA for a number of years, and we’d got to know Glenn very, very well. And it’s really nice, when we’re establishing this whole initiative at the GCI, that, you know, that the Getty’s not known for its modern art collection at all.

So there was a lot of initial questioning: why is the GCI even doing this? But we made the case, I think, quite clearly that the fact we don’t have a collection to work for, it actually liberates us to be able to look at all kinds of issues for the field. And it was a very nice moment where it was almost the first time, I think, when somebody has got in touch with us to say, “I’ve had this question from Cai’s studio about the longevity of some of his colored gunpowders, and I immediately thought of you guys.”

So I, within about a second I think, called Rachel and just said, “We’ve just had this phone call from Cai’s studio, and this idea about doing this big study, this surely is meant to be. So I think very quickly, Rachel, you got in touch with the studio and moved us on, we are absolutely looking about this issue of fading and light exposure of the colored gunpowders. But it then turned into this really exciting, sort of overall research project.

CUNO: So I know that Cai, you were working, at that time and are still working, with canvas and gunpowder as a pigment on canvas and so on. But you also continued to work with fireworks. So tell us two things. One about the history of your working with fireworks and the relationship to painting. And then how it was and when it was that you, as a painter, became concerned with the materials of your work, and therefore, contacted the GCI.

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: When we talk about my creation on canvas and the outdoors explosion event, there’s some history and context that I can share with you. In the beginning, when I was in my hometown Quanzhou, I actually started by exploding gunpowder on oil painting first. For example, there [was] once that I placed a bowl of gunpowder behind me, while igniting with an incense stick, the oil painting in front of me. And all of a sudden, the gunpowder behind me exploded. So I was caught off guard. Later I realized it was because gunpowder is very sensitive to any, like, sparkles even, in the air, which can be easily exploded.

And later I moved to Japan. With my wife Hong Hong, I often worked in the kitchen at my home, creating gunpowder paintings. And there was exhaust in the kitchen, so the smoke resulting from the explosion can easily disperse. But I was faced with lots of limitations in Japan. For example, oftentimes when I was installing my artworks in the gallery, I would be very conscious of whoever is entering the gallery, wondering whether that guy would buy my work. Or at a certain point, there would be a red dot on my painting, meaning it’s already sold. But that kind of sentiments and the resulting anxiety made me uncomfortable. I felt especially vulnerable by such kind of sentiments.

And also, because if I created paintings indoors. size-wise, it’s very limited. And the there happened to be this opportunity that someone invited me to participate in an exhibition. I got this idea and asking them, “Why don’t we create my painting outdoors so I won’t have that limitation of the physical space?”

I should also mention that some historical context also affected my decision of creating more explosions outdoors. At the time I heard the news about the Tiananmen Square incident, and then there came the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which all prompted me to think about all those social changes and turmoils happen in the world. And as a result, my art probably should also go outdoors, to embrace more the society and to let my art be created in a more, a broader space, like the infinite outdoors area, and even the universe.

CUNO: Now, you continued to work both with fireworks and with gunpowder on painting.

CAI: Yea.

CUNO: They’re very different in one respect, and that’s what brings you to the GCI. The fireworks are transitory. They explode, they’re gone, there’s smoke—poof—and then they don’t exist anymore. Maybe just marks on the ground. But the paintings, you want them to last forever. And you’ve come to the GCI to explore about the longevity of the colors and the pigments that you’re working with. Is there a conflict in your mind that one is transitory and one is permanent?

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, for me, painting on canvas, this process is almost like lovemaking, which includes foreplay, flirting, an orgasm, and afterplay. Essentially, it’s a very private process. While for the outdoors explosion event, for me, it’s more like a revolution or a big movement. Probably this impression is associated with my early upbringing in China, which was filled with movements and revolutions. Just like the cultural revolutions that require[d] lots of extensive participation and everybody was super excited about everything. Creating outdoors explosion event may also be related with my constant imagination and curiosity about cosmos, about its infinity and freedom.

Outdoors explosion event, indeed, it seems time-based, ephemeral. But it may also be eternal, in a sense, because it’s a one-time thing, people may especially feel at that moment they’re channeled with cosmos, life, and something eternal. While if you look at a permanent sculpture, then you will mostly realize, well, this is just a work that has been in this aging process.

Well, painting, of course, is different from the outdoors explosion event. Partly because I always think we have a unique and a permanent affection for painting, ever since the beginning of time, when people created cave paintings, for example. Mankind throughout history always had this desire to paint something.

Additionally, well, there are lots of major museums in the world, well, from Pompidou Centre and MoMA, Met. And all those major museums, they have my works in their collection, some on paper and some on canvas. But those museums often would ask me with curiosity that, “Well, Cai, you started creating gunpowder paintings in 1984, and how long will the color last?”

I was also curious. Really, how long would they last? So as a result, probably that’s part of the reason why I started collaborating with GCI, to know more about the future about my work and the pigment. In a sense, it’s like I want to know more about the future of me, how I would age.

In fact, in my hometown Quanzhou, there is this ritual that before the wedding ceremony, oftentimes you would go to the fortuneteller to understand this couple’s destiny. But sometimes when you get answers like, well, this young woman, she wouldn’t last too long, but I always believed that as long as you love her, you wouldn’t care that much about those, well, apparently negative fortunetelling. You won’t care about how she would age.

Even you know that, regardless, you will still love her. And also the same as an artist. The sentiment is the same. But here at the Getty, which is just like a hospital for artworks, when they know that this young woman has some problems, I would be curious, you know, what may be the cure.

CUNO: Okay, Rachel, Tom brought us to the point where Cai Guo-Qiang contacts you and colleagues at NYU. What’s the next step with the GCI?

RIVENC: I think we immediately saw the opportunity, as Tom mentioned, to do a really broad study, as we have done with other artists, but not only on his materials and processes. Not just the gunpowder, but starting from the very beginning, his painting and then his transitional painting, in which he started— I call it torturing the paint, because he mixes gunpowder into it and tries to ignite it. And as a result, it creates really interesting paint topography. And then all the way to now, where he uses only gunpowder on canvas.

And I think Jim, your comparison with pastel is very apt, in the sense that it’s a loosely-bound medium, quite friable. With pigments in the case of Cai’s fireworks, they contain a lot of synthetic organic pigments, some of which are sensitive to light.

CUNO: So the fireworks themselves have pigment in them?

RIVENC: So there’s two types of material that Cai uses. One is black gunpowder that he’s used mostly for decades, like those we’re looking at here.

CAI: Yeah. This is a black gunpowder, and this is a color gunpowder.

RIVENC: And black gunpowder, as you mentioned, also has its origin in China; perhaps also India. The composition of black gunpowder has not changed for centuries. It’s made of saltpeter, which is potassium nitrate, a source of sulfur, often the realgar, which is also a pigment. That’s why it’s this bright orange. And also a fuel, which is often an organic compound like charcoal. And this has been very constant.

The colored powders, on the other hand, they’re made for a completely different purpose. They are made to be volatilized in the sky, to create clouds of smoke. So they contain these synthetic organic pigments or dyes that provide the color. And the formulation is a little modified, because they need to burn at lower temperatures, so the dye is not damaged by the heat.

CUNO: So we’re in the laboratory, looking at a table. And at the table are small rectangles of stretched canvas. And different materials have been put onto these canvases, and some have been burned and some have exploded and some have colors and some are brown. Tell us, Cai, how this represents your working process.

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Before talking more about my creation and process, I want to first share a little bit about the difference between black gunpowder and the colored gunpowder for me. I actually realized this gradually, as I worked more with both of them.

Black gunpowder, for me, it’s more masculine. It’s about speed and explosion shock waves, and it’s about intense energy. And for me, it’s like, more about yang, the positive energy. Yang, as opposed to yin, the negative energy.

On the other hand, the colored gunpowder, it relies more on the rendering of smoke. For me, it’s more about yin, the negative energy. Well, both black and colored gunpowder paintings are about something about energies. But yin and yang, for people and for an artist and for expressing a cosmos subject, for example, both sides are needed.

But the question for me is, when it comes to yang, the positive energy, abstract expression itself sometimes is enough. As for the yin, the negative energy, and hence the color gunpowder paintings, oftentimes I need the stencil to realize the shapes, in order to complete the work. And stencil sometimes was made through laser cut machine, and sometimes with the help of my assistants, cutting the lines of my drawings.

But essentially, the colored gunpowder requires the shapes to help complete the work. So in short, probably I can say the black gunpowder relies more on the pressure of explosion and the pure explosion itself; while for colored gunpowder, shapes and the smoke effect is more important.

CUNO: Tom, Rachel, tell us what you’ve learned thus far in the project. And how different is it working with this material, from the materials that you otherwise work with?

RIVENC: Well, I think if I may start with a general remark, I think what Cai’s doing here is something that we have to grapple with in conservation of contemporary art, which is artists reaching out of the realm of fine arts to all kind of esoteric fields, to adopt materials and processes, to experiment with them, and then make them part of their practice. And that’s something that we really have to react to, in the sense we have to understand this material and from scratch, understand how it ages and might deteriorate.

While we have had centuries to understand what oil paint does, and many scientific studies, this is quite a new field, because these materials were never meant to be laid on a canvas. So part of the study has been to understand that. How the particulates attach themselves, get mixed into the fibers of either the canvas or the—

CUNO: How do they attach themselves to the canvas?

RIVENC: Well, I think again, a little bit like pastel. But in that case, the strength of the deflagration or detonation pushes the particles of powder into the fibers of either paper or canvas.

CUNO: So for the podcast listener, the shapes that we’re looking at were not made by hand; they’re not sort of spread on, painted onto the canvas, and lit afire. But somehow, the fire and the explosion attaches the pigments to the canvas?

RIVENC: Well, Cai would lay down the powders, either in an abstract shape or, as he mentioned, following a pattern with stencils or when he wants to do something a bit more figurative. And then a fuse. And often he adds black gunpowder to the colored pyrotechnics powders, so that there is more of a detonation. And then he also often covers this. Partly for safety reasons, but also to create some effects and put some weight on them. And then detonates. So the strength of the detonation pushes the particles into the fibers or either the canvas or the paper. So they are basically mechanically anchored into it.

CUNO: So the pigments and the fiber of the canvas then become intricately connected or linked together, [Rivenc: Mm-hm, mm-hm] so that they’re one and the same at that point.

CUNO: Is there any kind of fixative put on top of it?

RIVENC: The studio is actually working to try to, with our help, develop a fixative that would not affect the appearance of the gunpowder. ’Cause as you can tell, looking again at these tests, there’s some areas that are matte, areas that are more glossy. There is quite a range of texture, so you wouldn’t want the fixative to change that. But you can also tell that some of the powders have more residues than others

As I understood—and Cai can explain better—but his philosophy is once he puts the canvas vertical, some things are bound to fall. What stays on is the artwork, essentially.

CUNO: Again, like pastel, which often detaches from the paper and ends up at the bottom of the frame. But we’re looking at examples of the kind of work that Cai does—all recently been made, is that right?

RIVENC: Yeah, absolutely.

CUNO: So how do you try to determine the effects of long-term change in the pigments, from things recently made?

RIVENC: We’ve focused a lot, in the case of the colored pyrotechnics powders, that—on light aging, because we think it’s what most likely to affect them. We’ve used two methods. One is called microfadometry, and you have, in a sense, an optical fiber, where you send, on a microscopic area, a huge blast of light. It ages that microscopic area, and you cannot see it with the naked eye, but you record spectra that tell you how the color would change.

We’ve also, reluctantly and with great pains, cut some of these tests, so that we could age them in an artificial aging chamber. So we’re here looking at something that was cut out of a broader test. So this very vivid purple, after quite a long cycle of light exposure, is very faded and becomes this much softer pink.

CUNO: So this aging chamber, you can actually, you know, simulate the change over time. And the time could be ten years, twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years, 200 years?

RIVENC: We approximate an aging time. Depending, of course, on which lighting conditions the works are exposed to, it could simulate between thirty or 300 years of aging.

CUNO: Were you ever afraid, when you were subjecting the canvas samples to this advanced aging, that maybe there was some latent gunpowder on the surface of the canvas that might explode under pressure?

RIVENC: [over Cuno] No, but I have sampled some of Cai’s work and traveled with the samples. And I got a bit nervous at the airport, when the custom dog was smelling my bag with the gunpowder samples.

CUNO: Yeah, yeah.

RIVENC: But no, otherwise, I think it’s fairly safe.

CUNO: So Cai, you’re looking at the results of some preliminary studies of the materials. What attracts your attention at this point?

CAI: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, as I said before, if I like this girl, then even if I was told that [s]he may not have a very positive destiny, I would still love her and then marry her. But still, I know that if there is a problem, there is a problem, that I want to face it. Just as Rachel said that, well, for my artworks, sometimes some particles would fall off the painting. That’s because the gunpowder that was not fully exploded. And not fully exploded mostly because the explosion speed was too fast, that it wasn’t able to be fully exploded.

I have to add that in fact, GCI’s research on me is not only about materials, but also about my techniques. And these two aspects are closely related to each other. So here, we’re looking at a sample of my work. Part of it, the particles, I realize, is indeed not fully exploded. But when it comes to things like that, now I had just discovered a new technique. After the completion of the work, I could use a fire spray to fire my artwork over again. So any unexploded gunpowder could be exploded fully at that moment and be fixed on the canvas. Usually after completing my work, I would lift it up and gently shake it so the particles would fall off. But in our case, for the sake of research, I keep the work as it.

But on the other hand, I feel it’s natural to have some particles coming off after completing the work. Because if we agree that any artwork, in its creation, is a dialogue with nature, then to have something coming off of my work may also be a natural thing.

CUNO: So Tom and Rachel, I know that your work will result, ultimately, in a book. But what’s between now and then? What’s left to do in your analysis?

RIVENC: Not too much, actually. We are wrapping up the analytical part of the research. One thing we’re not seeing here is all the work we’ve done on analysis on real artworks, where we take microscopic samples and—

CUNO: Real works by Cai?

RIVENC: Yes. Yes. Where we take microscopic samples and then subject them to a range of analytical techniques. So I think now what’s left to be done is mostly the writing, probably still a few analyses to tidy things up. And then there’s two more directions that we’re looking at.

One is perhaps— We now have a lot of contacts in the pyrotechnics industry, and Cai has a history of innovating together with people from the pyrotechnics industry. So maybe, you know, looking at certain replacement for some of the pigments that have shown to be more sensitive than others.

And then the other direction is, in terms of dissemination, beyond the book, Cai is very keen in having some of these materials exhibited sometimes along his artwork, to really explain not only the materials, but also the process. Because of course, the process of how he’s using these materials is extremely important, and the mastery of the process he has achieved over the year[s]. And I think that’s something that, for conservators in the future, is gonna be really important to understand how he’s been using the materials, and also how he’s thinking about it, all these questions that we’ve been asking him.

LEARNER: Yes, Jim, I just wanted to say a couple of very broad things about the aging part of the study, just to go back there slightly, because it really is a focus of a lot of the different things we grapple with in the profession the whole time.

I think the first thing to make clear is that the sorts of techniques used to speed up aging, fading in this particular case, as Rachel was talking about, they are hugely intense light sources. So the less intense of the two options that Rachel spoke about, when we take these samples and put them into our fadometer, roughly speaking, we’re submitting the paintings, the gunpowder, to about a thousand times the amount of light in a typical gallery condition.

So that’s a factor of obviously much brighter sources, the fact that it’s on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. So even if we see fading happening, it shouldn’t be all about alarm bells. You know, there’re lots of things that can be done. It’s very typical, especially works of art on paper, where light levels are kept lower to slow down all of these processes. And I think that’s something that Rachel and I will think about, in terms of how we—how she, in fact—presents this information back to Cai.

The fact that this phthalocyanine blue stays so stable through these very intense light aging studies. It’s quite extraordinary that there are some pigments that can, to all intents and purposes, will remain fairly unaffected by years and years, in fact decades and centuries, of light.

CUNO: [over Learner] Blue is vulnerable to light.

LEARNER: Yes. Historically, many of the blue pigments have been very problematic. This particular pigment, phthalocyanine blue, was one of the major breakthroughs in the pigment industry. I had no idea it would be used in these colored gunpowders, but it is.

And it is often the big question, how long is this artwork gonna last. As Rachel mentioned, it’s an approximation and it’s very hard to be precise. But I think with fading of color, it is something that we can get more precise about.

Two other things that triggered my mind just looking at these tests that Cai has produced for us just for this purposed. You know, normally, we work on the actual art objects with the sort of microfade testing, trying to predict what’s gonna happen on the actual artwork.

If we try and do broader studies, we typically have to make our own mockups. I mean, actually, you can’t see this on the podcast, but behind us is a canvas that we made during the Jackson Pollock mural project, trying to understand how this particular paint, this pink paint would’ve been applied in the way it was applied, so we just made our own mockups.

You hardly ever get a mockup, an authentic mockup made by an artist, with these extraordinarily subtle effects going on, on which we can test. So it is quite a unique case that we can do that.

And then finally, there’s this constant tension, I guess is not too strong a word, when we start to work with artists that the last thing that we want to do is impose or change the creativity and the, you know, the artistic license, this amazing way of exploring new techniques and taking risks and all that kind of stuff.

And so when we come along with our lab coats and our tests and our scientific methodologies, I get really nervous when we start to think we’ve seen this thing, and therefore it might affect Cai in that way. And I think what’s lovely now is the dialogue that Cai is having with Rachel, really, to really explain that that’s not necessarily gonna happen.

Maybe there are better pigments to make longer-lasting fireworks. Maybe it’s just owners being aware that certain colors are a bit more sensitive, so you keep the lights down— But it’s funny how all these different issues I’ve just mentioned are often things we think about separately. And this project, just looking at this bunch of samples here on this table, they all sorta come together.

RIVENC: I just wanna quickly reinforce that. The light sensitivity that we’ve seen in these works is nothing beyond a watercolor or any drawing or things that are light sensitive, and that museums deal with on a daily basis, you know, by being mindful of light levels and everything.

All the beautiful old masterpieces have in museums have often already faded and some of the, you know, color balance have changed, and we find this patina beautiful. And in fact, the preliminary results, even the— some of the colors are very stable. But even the ones that have changed, I find them still very beautiful in their modified form. And in fact, this dialogue with Cai is lovely because as he said, it might not prevent him from using them. It’s just a factor also of accepting change and embracing it.

CUNO: Mm-hm. So Cai, at some point soon, Rachel and Tom will have finished their work and they will begin the task of writing it up and then publishing the work, and then their work will be finished. But your work will never be finished. So tell us what’s next for you.

CAI: Okay. [Chinese]

SANG LUO: Well, firstly I have to go back to what I said a little bit yesterday. While we all enjoy seeing what the Mogao Cave in Dunhuang China is like today, its current status, but when we look at the simulation of their original status, we sometimes sign to ourselves that, well, thank God we have this time which allowed those mural paintings to age, in order to give them the current color, which conveys a very charming sense of eternity.

The same applies to the Terra Cotta Warriors and also ancient Greek sculpture. I heard that their original status was all colored with pigments. But nowadays they have their unique charm. And I’m the same. I’m now sixty years old. Although I may not be as good as me at my twenties and I’m sort of old now, but I have my unique charm today.

Well, I have to say, while we love the Mogao Cave in Dunhuang in its current status now, but still we need a conservation institute in order to constantly maintain these relics and to try to reach longevity.

So I have to express my gratitude to Getty and the GCI again. Because unlike my predecessor artists, who I guess could only visit the research lab, seeing how they are studied, as a spirit or a dead ghost, I’m fortunate enough to see how my artwork is researched when I’m still alive. So thank you, really.

But of course, I’m aware that if there is a sickness, then we have to try to find a cure. So now I understand how my artwork would be like, say in 300 years later. I will keep that in mind. But on the other hand, just as Tom said, this wouldn’t affect my experimentation, and I will continue taking risks with my creativity.

About my next steps, I’m not entirely sure yet. I have been reviewing my notes from my younger times, reading my own notebooks and reviewing my reflections early on about painting and universe, and I revisit my original passion about these subjects. Those will be very inspirational for myself.

As to the project that will happen next, well, in November this year, my exhibition at Uffizi Gallery in Florence will open. That will be a dialogue with the Renaissance time and its spirit. And on February 22nd next year, my exhibition at [the] National Archeological Museum in Naples will open, as my dialogue with the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, especially the museum’s renowned collection of Pompeii heritage. And these, alongside with my exhibition at the Prado Museum and Pushkin Museum and a few other museums will constitute my “Journey through the Western Art History.”

At the same time, I’m also preparing for my explosion event in Mexico City, which will happen April the 22nd next year, which will also be the 500th commemoration of the Spanish arrival on Mexican soil. This project in Mexico City will be titled Encounters with the Unknown. It’s one of my series of projects under the theme of [the] universe, which resonates with my decades of interest in the subject of cosmos.

There is this one image that may best characterize my artistic framework. Well, a reverse pyramid, on top, is opening up to the universe. And another triangle pyramid at the bottom opens up to art history. In the very middle is a little boy. That is me. And then surrounding me is our time and the society that we are in.

And all these elements within this artistic framework that I just described have been coexisting with each other and naturally developing themselves.

I’m the— forever the little boy, who never grows up.

CUNO: Cai, that’s a very poetic image to leave the podcast with. So thank you so much for your time on this, and for all of your thoughts and for trusting us to do the work that Rachel and Tom are undertaking. And we look forward to the results of your work, so thank you very much for participating, as well.

CAI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

CAI GUO-QIANG: [Chinese]

SANG LUO: I really hope that my dialogue, this decades-long dialog...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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