Cai Guo-Qiang has wowed audiences around the world with his explosive pyrotechnic art—and he couldn’t have done it without the help of one of his biggest champions, Wendi Murdoch

Wendi Murdoch is passionate about a great many things—fashion, food and film among them. She’s also obsessive about technology, and can list from memory facts and figures about the hottest start-ups from Silicon Valley to Shanghai. But most of all, Murdoch loves artists—none more so than Cai Guo-Qiang. “I have many great pieces from Cai,” she says in her rapid-fire English. “They’re in my living room, my bedroom, my hallway. They’re in my home in China, my home in the US. I love to be with his art. It makes me happy.” She pauses. “I’m very honoured to have them.”

Cai, sitting next to her, beams.

We’re gathered around a table in Cai’s studio in New York’s East Village shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps into the city. This immaculate, airy space is where Cai, whose unlikely medium is gunpowder, dreams up the spectacular pyrotechnic displays that have made him a global sensation since the mid-1990s, when the Asian Cultural Council invited him to take part in a residency programme in the US. It’s also where many of his collaborations with Murdoch—who was first a friend, then a collector of his art and is now one of his greatest patrons—begin. Here, at this table, they first discussed Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a documentary Murdoch produced about his decades-long dream to create a 500-metre-tall ladder of fireworks that would briefly connect Earth to the heavens. The film took the Sundance Film Festival by storm, was bought by Netflix and released in 2016.

Following the success of Sky Ladder, Murdoch has introduced Cai to a constant stream of art collectors, museum directors and friends who may be able to support his career. “Whether she’s in New York or somewhere else, Wendi is always surrounded by friends,” says Cai. “She brings people together.”

The pandemic has halted the normal whirlwind of events Murdoch hosts, but she has kept in regular touch with Cai. “We have weekly Zoom calls,” she says in a subsequent email. “And we were able to meet for lunch with social distancing over the summer. Of course, for a true artist like Cai, periods of solitude are very important.”

It has been particularly critical this year because Cai has been preparing for three major exhibitions: he humbly notes an exhibition is planned to open this winter at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing to mark the palace’s 600th anniversary, and another show is in the works for soon after—potentially at M+ in Hong Kong. Murdoch, who jumps in whenever Cai is being self-effacing, quickly adds another project that has the potential to be seen around the world. “He’s involved in the Winter Olympics in China in 2022,” she says. Cai created the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but says he can’t yet reveal his exact role in the 2022 games. “He’s so modest,” murmurs Murdoch to Cai’s wife, Hong Hong.

Cai’s modesty was the first thing Murdoch noticed when they met. “It was in 2002 in London at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly,” she recalls. “Cai was doing this really cool project there, an explosion project, and our mutual friend, Arnold Chan, a famous lighting designer, introduced us. I was blown away by how beautiful Cai’s art is. And as a person, he’s so calm and Zen-like.”

The feeling was mutual. “At the very beginning, I immediately felt that she was like an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while,” says Cai. “Wendi’s personality is like gunpowder.”

Murdoch laughs and asks, “Bubbly?”

Cai thinks for a moment. “Very energetic,” he says. From Cai, there is no greater compliment.

Finding inspiration

The 62-year-old artist took up painting as a teenager in Quanzhou, first working with western oil paints, gouache and watercolours. But it was a few years later, when he was in his mid 20s, that he found his true calling—making art by using fire and gunpowder to burn patterns into his oil paintings. His early experiments were erratic and the results unpredictable, but this lack of control appealed to Cai, who has long been drawn to the capricious powers of earth, water, air and fire, and the conflicting emotions of awe and fear these elements inspire.

By 1989, he was thinking beyond paper and canvas and planning “explosion events”. For his first, Human Abode: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 1, he erected a yurt by a river in Tokyo, where he was living at the time, and blew it up. As the work’s title suggests, Cai wasn’t just hoping to entertain people on Earth—he hoped the light and noise of his explosion would also capture the attention of what Cai describes as the “unseen world”, an unknowable universe of gods, spirits and aliens who might be looking down on our planet from elsewhere in the cosmos.

There are other, more earthly reasons why Cai wanted to work with pyrotechnics. Gunpowder is closely associated with China, where it was invented around the year 800, and Cai’s hometown is a major manufacturing centre for firecrackers. He remembers classmates coming to school with their hands stained red from filling firecrackers in factories. It was also an unexplored medium in contemporary art. “Other people can paint, but no one else can do what he does,” says Murdoch.

Critics and curators agree. By the late 1990s, Cai was devising projects for major museums. In 2002, he was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create an explosion event. The result was Transient Rainbow, a minute-long burst of colour over the East River that was the first fireworks display allowed in the city after the 9/11 terrorist attack. A rainbow, Cai thought, was a symbol of promise and renewal for a city still grappling with trauma. In 2003, he set London’s Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern alight in a shower of pink and white sparks. A few months later, he stunned New York with two rings of flame above Manhattan—shapes he saw as talismans to protect the city—to mark the 150th anniversary of Central Park.

A lifelong dream

Then, in 2008, the Chinese government presented Cai with his biggest project yet when they made him director of visual and special effects for the Beijing Olympic Games. “I felt pressure,” he admits. “This is an artwork for a nation—not just an individual’s artwork. For the 2008 Olympics, my goal was, through my participation, to make the Olympics and China more international, artistic and modern.” If the viewing figures of the opening ceremony are anything to go by, he succeeded. At least two billion people around the world tuned in and saw enormous golden fireworks shaped as footprints march across the Chinese capital past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the Bird’s Nest stadium, which then exploded with colour.

“I was super proud,” says Murdoch. “And not just me—all my family. All our friends. We have a group chat on WeChat—it’s a fan club for Cai.”

International acclaim followed. But more than anything, Cai wanted to fulfil a 21-year-long dream: Sky Ladder. He’d tried to realise the project several times in multiple locations over the years, but it had been scuppered by everything from the weather to terrorist threats. He was determined to complete the work in 2015, when his grandmother—to whom he dedicated it—turned 100. When Cai told Murdoch his plan, she thought it would be the perfect subject for a documentary. “I thought it would be good to share with a broader audience,” says Murdoch.

“His love for his grandmother especially, Chinese culture, and the way his art bridges East and West, the way his art connects people—it was a great story.”

Cai was used to appearing on camera. As a student, he worked as an actor and played minor roles in martial arts films, and he always documents his explosion projects on video. “Because my art is transient—it disappears after just one moment—I’ve been documenting my projects on film since the 1990s,” he explains.

“When I lived in Japan, I was lucky to have Araki Takahisa who was willing to film my projects. And later, Shanshan Xia joined our studio and began filming my projects—she still films them now. But Wendi was the only one who could make the Sky Ladder documentary happen.”

Murdoch assembled a world-class team, including Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald and producers Fisher Stevens and Bennett Miller. “These people are all artists with very strong personalities, including me,” says Cai.

“We all had different opinions and ideas. Only Wendi was able to gather all of us to work together to reach a point of agreement.”

Murdoch—who is quick to champion her friends’ strengths, but rarely mentions her own—admits, “I’m a very hands-on producer.” Cai adds: “Wendi’s ability to bring people from different disciplines and cultures together is particularly valuable now. It’s important at a time when our world tends to be more isolated and retrogressive.”

Connecting and investing

Murdoch is a legendary networker. “I love people. I love to connect people,” she says. She’s an excellent matchmaker—she played Cupid for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and introduced music executive Lyor Cohen and former model Xin Li, who’s now deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia. Cai brought fireworks as a gift to the latter couple’s wedding in Sag Harbor, New York.

Her ability to make the right introductions can be as useful for business as it is for romance. After her divorce from media mogul Rupert in 2014, Murdoch reinvented herself as an investor, particularly in the tech industry. She was an early backer of Uber and Snapchat and now has a hand in tech-focused health insurance firm Oscar and several other buzzy start-ups.

“I’m very open-minded and I’m always curious about new things, new technology,” she says, though she’s as interested in the people behind these businesses as she is in their products. “My friend Anne Wojcicki started [genetic testing service] 23AndMe. I met her 11 years ago; we’ve been friends since. I didn’t know anything about genetics, but I was curious to learn, so I invested.”

And in one important case she combined her interest in art and technology. Murdoch co-founded Artsy, the online art marketplace, in 2009, years after she’d first told her friend Dasha Zhukova, a Russian-American businesswoman, that she wished there was a database of art for sale that she could access on her computer.

Murdoch and Zhukova teamed up with Carter Cleveland, a Princeton computer science graduate, and Sebastian Cwilich, a former Christie’s executive, to make Murdoch’s dream a reality. “In the current art ecosystem, if you have money, you or your art advisor buy art through a gallery or auction house. It’s very small,” says Murdoch. “We want to make art more accessible to the world—to anybody. Technology can make that happen.”

When they founded Artsy, Murdoch’s first call was to Larry Gagosian, who promptly invested. She also brought in dozens of other backers, including tech entrepreneur Joshua Kushner, Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault and Eric Schmidt, who was CEO of Google at the time, as well as several major investors from China. Today, almost all leading galleries list works for sale on Artsy and the platform regularly partners with top auction houses. It facilitates sales of roughly US$20 million a month.

“We now have 200 people working for Artsy based in SoHo, New York,” she says. “It’s grown to a stage where we’ve hired a professional CEO, Mike Steib, who’s going to manage it. I’m very excited to see how we can make it a big, successful global platform for art.” 

Starting conversations

Murdoch also likes to shape other businesses. “When my Chinese friends come to New York, they meet my American friends,” says Murdoch. These meetings often take place over dinner at her Fifth Avenue penthouse, where Murdoch cooks jiaozi dumplings to her mother’s recipe. Sometimes Murdoch deliberately pairs entrepreneurs with potential investors at these meals, but most of the time the goal is simply to stimulate an exchange of ideas. She wants people to learn from each other, so seats business tycoons next to fashion designers, tech titans next to artists. “Cai does this too—he hosts famous lunches in his studio,” she says.

Every lunchtime, everyone in Cai’s studio, including Cai himself, takes a moment to eat together. The menu normally features traditional Chinese food: favourites include winter melon soup, stir-fried lily bulbs, fried lotus pancake and preserved duck eggs. Cai often invites guests to join these lunches and has hosted everyone from politicians to scientists at his studio table. Like Murdoch’s dinners, he sees these meals as an opportunity for people to speak freely and make connections. “He does lunch, I do dinner,” says Murdoch with a laugh.

There are other similarities between the two. They both exercise obsessively—Murdoch five times a week, Cai every other day. When they first met, they discovered they lived just a few blocks apart in SoHo, though Murdoch later moved uptown. They each have two daughters, who they raised speaking Mandarin. “Our children all studied Chinese together. And Cai gave my daughters painting classes,” says Murdoch.

Both Murdoch and Cai grew up in provincial cities in China: Cai in Quanzhou on the southeastern coast, Murdoch in the industrial city of Xuzhou. Both their parents were mid-level professionals: Cai’s father ran a state-owned bookshop, Murdoch’s managed a factory.

At times, both families struggled. Murdoch’s childhood home had no hot water, no refrigerator, no TV and no telephone. Every day at 7pm, the building’s electricity would be shut off, plunging her family’s apartment into darkness. “When I was little, I never dreamed of the life I have today,” says Murdoch. “It’s incredible—beyond any expectations I could ever dream of.”

They are both proud of Chinese culture and return regularly to mainland China—their houses in Beijing are just a few streets apart—but their globetrotting lives have also led them to see the world as inextricably interconnected, almost borderless. “We have homes in China, we have homes in New York, we do work everywhere,” says Murdoch.

“Cai gets inspiration from every country in the world. I personally invest in technology companies in China, the US and Europe. My children are half Australian, half Chinese, they speak Chinese, are educated in New York and work in China in the summers. We feel we’re citizens of the world.”

This sentiment is reflected in Cai’s upcoming exhibition in Beijing. In 2017, he launched a project he called An Individual’s Journey through Western Art History, which has seen him present solo shows of his gunpowder works on paper and canvas at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Prado Museum in Madrid, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, each inspired by a figure or movement from western art history. “I’m tracing western history from the Greco-Roman time to the medieval time to the Renaissance to Baroque art to modernism and socialist realism,” says Cai. “For this project I see all the history from different cultures as my own heritage, and all the artworks of different cultures as my own heritage. One world heritage, not national heritages. This is a worldview I share with Wendi.”

The show at the Palace Museum will be the culmination of this project, bringing all of Cai’s works inspired by European masterpieces back to the historic heart of Beijing. It will reflect Cai’s personal experiences of travelling and living abroad, but also, he hopes, encourage others to look to different people, cultures and countries for inspiration.

The next sky ladder

There is a similarly poetic story behind his possible show at M+ in Hong Kong. “I’ve worked all around the world, but not yet in Hong Kong,” says Cai. “Hong Kong had a huge influence on me because when I was very little a lot of people from my hometown would go to Hong Kong and bring back magazines, stories and information.

And kung-fu films had a huge impact on me. I incorporated the spirit of martial arts into my work.” Before her marriage, Murdoch—who is advising Cai on the potential project at M+—lived in Hong Kong and worked as vice president of Star TV. “Hong Kong is full of smart, interesting people,” she says. “Cai’s Hong Kong project is so important.”

So, in a way, Cai and Murdoch are coming full circle. The first project brings them back to the country where they grew up; the second to a city that has inspired them both. But neither is prone to reflecting for too long on their personal histories—they’re always thinking about the future.

“We challenge each other to do more,” says Murdoch. “Sky Ladder was about that—about taking on a huge challenge, something that seems impossible. We always say: what’s your next Sky Ladder?”

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