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Cai Guo-Qiang's Time as a Firefighter...
Concept for the Qatar World Cup Closing Ceremony

Cai Guo-Qiang, Concept for the Qatar World Cup Closing Ceremony [Unrealized], Animation, 2022. Animation produced by Beijing Blackbow Culture Communication Company. 


With the successful conclusion of the World Cup, Cai Guo-Qiang published his unrealized creative concept for the Qatar World Cup closing ceremony online as a digital artwork. As of the publication of this article, the work, published on Cai Guo-Qiang’s Douyin account, has been viewed over 55 million times (excluding views of reposted content by various media outlets). The online publication of the concept is a gesture of warm congratulations to the artist’s friends in Qatar for another great feat as well as his exploration of a new art form that fuses the virtual with reality, inflected by digitalization and artificial intelligence...
The following is a transcript of the interview Cai Guo-Qiang gave for a special program hosted by Douyin covering the origins of the artist’s participation in the creative production of the World Cup and his enduring bond with Qatar for now ten years and counting…

Douyin Interview

Douyin: I heard Master Cai, at the invitation of Qatar’s Royal Family, participated in the creative planning behind the opening and closing ceremonies. Is this true?

CaiI am used to “setting fires.” But unexpectedly, one month before the opening of the World Cup, I was contacted by several different parties. The parties informed me that the organizer of the World Cup wanted me to travel to Doha as soon as possible. Upon hearing this news, I immediately asked Princess Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, who I had collaborated with multiple times in the past, about the validity of these messages. She said all was true, the Qatari King was on-site during the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and had seen the fireworks I had arranged for that event…

The princess then asked the chief director of the opening ceremony to present to me their entire creative proposal over ZOOM. The director explained, after listening to the suggested schedule of events, the king was not satisfied that there were no highlight moments in the proposed fireworks. This time, it seems I was to play the role of a firefighter…rushing in as the flames were going up…Thus, the king suggested that I be called in to help create impressive highlights for the opening and closing ceremonies, including ones that would resonate with international viewers watching over livestream. The king also hoped I could create a moment that would connect the disparate stadiums in which the events of the Cup were to take place. 

I shared that, in my experience, it is not a difficult task to excite audiences during large-scale events. However, these moments of excitement often evaporate from memory shortly after the conclusion of the given event. Thus, it takes great creativity to come up with a performance that lingers in the minds of audiences for long after the show concludes. 

Because of this, my three criteria for producing memorable performances are: to be creative yet outrageous; produce a grand visual spectacle; and ensure capability of transmitting strong emotions…with these components present, it is easy to create memories that will last many lifetimes.
Then, I rushed to Doha for an emergency meeting with the organizer. My ideas were for a program of on-site performances and an off-site drone fireworks piece. Of course, everyone was very excited after seeing and hearing about this proposal...

At the end of October 2022, Cai Guo-Qiang made a site visit to Doha. Photo by Sang Luo
Fresh off the plane and straight to the stadium for on-site inspections. Photos by Cai Guo-Qiang and Sang Luo
Accompanied by the producers of the opening ceremony, Cai Guo-Qiang inspects the venue for the opening ceremony. Photo by Sang Luo
Cai Guo-Qiang and the creative director of the opening ceremony. Photo by Sang Luo

Douyin: Can you tell us more about the specifics of your two creative ideas, for the performance and the off-site fireworks?

Cai: The firework ideas I proposed for inside the venue can still be realized at a later date, so I will keep those under wraps for now. Regarding the firework proposal for outside the venue, let me first explain that there are two types of fireworks in the world. The first type, which compose the majority of the world’s fireworks, are known as “atmospheric fireworks.” These fireworks create a warm atmosphere and lift the mood of an occasion. However, audiences will not remember the specifics of what they saw after the atmospheric fireworks are over. The second type are known as “highlight fireworks.” These are the kind I have been committed to developing. Therefore, the activities I participate in all emphasize that in addition to atmospheric fireworks, there must also be conceptual and formal innovations, creating unforgettable moments for audiences, such as the Big Footprints at the 2008 Olympics.

References for Highlight Fireworks: (left) "Big Footprints" at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Photo by Hiro Ihara; (right) Welcoming Pine at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Photo by Lin Yi.

Douyin: Can you tell our audience more about the creative appeal and technical highlights of these drone fireworks?
Cai: Imagine the beginning moments of the closing ceremony of the Qatar World Cup. In the sky above Lusail Stadium, nearly a thousand drones form the tent-like shape of Al Bayt Stadium (the venue of the opening ceremony). The tent then transforms into a flying carpet, which in turn morphs into the mascot of this year’s World Cup, La’eeb, bouncing a football off his head.

Drone fireworks are utilized to present an image of a tent over Lusail Stadium for the closing ceremony, recalling the image of Al Bayt Stadium where the opening ceremony took place just a number of days ago. Screenshot from the animation video.
The tent transforms into a flying carpet. Subsequently, the flying carpet morphs into the mascot of this year's World Cup, La'eeb. Screenshot from the animation video.
The drone fireworks compose an image of the World Cup mascot La'eeb butting a football on his head. Screenshot from the animation video.
Following this, football-shaped fireworks fly over all the stadiums active during the World Cup, one by one, as if the venues were passing the ball to one another! Finally, all the stadiums simultaneously unleash football-shaped fireworks into the sky above as the ending scene. This would have been the world’s first “football fireworks”…ha!
Football-shaped fireworks shoot out above the eight stadiums hosting this year's World Cup, as if a ball is being passed between them through the air. Rendering of the visual effect. 
A football-shaped firework rising above the stadium which hosted the World Cup closing ceremony. Screenshot from animation video.
This design would connect the closing ceremony with the opening ceremony, while also highlighting the stories of several stadiums during this period …All to build up to the night’s long awaited-moment!
In the final moments of the World Cup, after the award ceremony had concluded, drone fireworks would set off the phrase “Thank you 7 & 10” (referencing the jerseys of Messi and Ronaldo). At the same time, animated images of the two soccer stars would appear in the sky.
Drone fireworks would spell out "Thank You 7&10" in the sky. Screenshot from animation video. 
These drones would then morph into a new shape, which reads “Thank you Football.” The animated Messi and Ronaldo would then transform into the logo of the World Cup. With three bright flashes and accompanying sounds, the drone fireworks would bid a reluctant farewell…
This year marked the final World Cup that a generation of football stars, namely Messi and Ronaldo, would participate in…Thus, I imagined it would be a warm and moving gesture to thank them for their contributions at the end of the closing ceremony. The expression of gratitude would also extend to all the athletes that have participated since the inaugural 1930 World Cup.
I predicted that the unexpected symbol of gratitude directed towards athletes and football as a sport, playing out in the vast night sky above the stadium would impress fans watching on-site and people participating over livestream across the globe, allowing them to resonate with its universal values. In these concluding moments, the world would also appreciate Qatar and the Doha World Cup for their huge and selfless dedication to this year’s event…
Drone fireworks would spell out "Thank You Football" in the sky. Screenshot from animation video. 

Douyin: Such a beautiful and creative idea. Why didn’t this end up being realized as a highlight of this year's World Cup closing ceremony?

CaiPrimarily because the timing was too rushed! “Ambient fireworks” are typically composed of traditional firework products. However, “highlight fireworks” are much more complicated and require a certain level of creativity as well as more intricate technical arrangements. For example, in the idea I proposed, the football shaped fireworks would need to be specially developed and tested before being set off for public enjoyment. The drones and fireworks my proposed project demanded also required repeated bite tests. We also needed adequate time to coordinate with the relevant cable networks in order to successfully deliver the experience to those watching on-screen. 
The organizer’s methods varied greatly from what my team was previously accustomed to. The production, technology, lighting, video, music and fireworks were all achieved through division of labor and through the collaboration of many different teams from all across the globe. Therefore, when we wished to insert large new action ideas at the very last minute, it proved very difficult in terms of timing and integration…

Douyin: It is such a pity that this project was not realized! 
Cai: Yes, I feel it is a great pity as well! That is why I wish to share the piece with everyone on Douyin, as a digital release of the work. The online release of the work is to express my gratitude to everyone who participated in this creative process! It is also my blessing to the World Cup in Qatar and my gratitude to football fans around the world as well as to football as a sport! Lastly, this is an expression of my thanks to the countless athletes, represented here by Ronaldo (No. 7) and Messi (No. 10)!

Douyin: Thank you, Mr. Cai! To conclude, I wanted to ask if you are personally a fan of football?
Cai: Haha! I have a fun short video, filmed during quarantine. I will let everyone watch it now and determine for themselves, ha!

Cai Guo-Qiang and his wife Hong Hong Wu practicing their football skills, New Jersey, USA, 2020. Video by Zhijun Cai.

A Brief Overview of the Enduring Bond between Cai Guo-Qiang and Qatar

In 2011, Cai Guo-Qiang held a solo exhibition entitled Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. The occasion marked the first solo exhibition of an international artist in the country of Qatar. The close connections between Arab culture and Cai Guo-Qiang’s hometown, as brought about by the Maritime Silk Road since the Tang Dynasty, became the inspiration for the works exhibited in the museum's over a dozen exhibition halls. For the project, the artist visited Doha several times, collaborated and held extensive dialogues with naturalistic and humanistic motifs from Qatar, and lived there for 45 days during the final period leading up to the exhibition opening...
Hundreds of years ago, a large number of Arab Muslims travelled to Quanzhou, including Thabit ibn Qays and Sa’d ibn Waqqas, two of Prophet Muhammad’s companions who are known in China as the Third and the Fourth Sages. Many of these Arab travelers were buried in Quanzhou following their deaths. Cai Guo-Qiang created Homecoming, carving the inscriptions found on the tombs of Arab ancestors in Quanzhou, such as "to die in a foreign land is to die a martyr," onto rocks. These rocks were placed inside and outside the Mathaf museum in Doha, bringing the souls of these Muslim ancestors home. On the opening day of the exhibition, Cai Guo-Qiang created the blasting project Black Ceremony, which "was a spiritual funeral for those Arab people who had died far away from home.”
Cai Guo-Qiang, Homecoming, 2011. Photos of its installation in Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Photos by Hiro Ihara
Cai Guo-Qiang, Black Ceremony, 2011. Photos by Hiro Ihara
Cai Guo-Qiang, Unrealized idea for Black Ceremony, 2011. Computer rendering.
“The new commissions reflect my relationship with Arab culture, and draw from the relationship between my hometown Quanzhou and the Arab world. These works embody my attention and contemplations throughout the years on the relationship between the Middle East and the world, as well as my sentiments and confusions towards the Arab world.”—Cai Guo-Qiang
In 2011, Cai Guo-Qiang created artworks on-site for his solo exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab in Doha and locals were invited to participate as part of the process.
Local volunteers assist Cai Guo-Qiang in creating the gunpowder painting Memories using traditional abayas, 2011, Doha. Photo courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art
Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder painting Memories exhibited at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo by Hiro Ihara
Volunteers assist Cai Guo-Qiang in creating the large-scale gunpowder ceramic work Fragile, 2011, Doha. Photo courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art
Installation view of Fragile at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo by Hiro Ihara
Installation view of Ninety-Nine Horses at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo by Hiro Ihara
Installation view of Endless at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo by Hiro Ihara
Installation view of Route at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo by Hiro Ihara
It is worth mentioning that in 2022, Homecoming was once again installed in Doha. This time, at Lusail Heritage Site near Lusail Stadium, where the World Cup opened, to welcome audiences from all around the globe...
A shot from the 2022 Installation of Homecoming, Lusail Heritage Site.
With the success of the solo exhibition in 2011 and the resulting friendship and trust, Qatar’s Princess Sheikha Al Mayassa invited Cai Guo-Qiang back to Doha again in 2016 to curate What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China.
The Al Riwaq Art Space in Doha wrapped in a poster promoting the What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China exhibition, 2016.
Participating artists and production teams from What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China visit the Richard Serra sculpture in the Qatari desert, 2016. Photo by Wen-You Cai 
As a curator, Cai Guo-Qiang devoted three years to the curatorial research and development of the exhibition. The resulting exhibition displayed the work of 15 contemporary Chinese artists and collectives born in Mainland China working in a variety of media: Jenova Chen, Hu Xiangqian, Hu Zhijun, Huang Yong Ping, Li Liao, Lian Shaoji, Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong, Jennifer Wen Ma, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Wang Jianwei, Xu Bing, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong and Zhou Chunya. The artworks displayed exemplified each and every artist’s unique artistic language and methodology and worked to establish a stronger relationship between Qatar and China.
Princess Sheikha Mayassa and Prince Sheikh Hassan of Qatar tour the What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China exhibition, Al Riwaq Art Space, Doha, 2016. Photos by Wen-You Cai
Critical reception of contemporary Chinese art has long been largely grounded in narratives of Chinese history and culture, focusing on the art market and the artworks’ sociopolitical context. In response to this phenomenon, Cai Guo-Qiang decided to display a selection of artworks created by Chinese artists of the present day, with the goal of underlining the individual pursuit of creativity within contemporary Chinese art, and further to re-direct the world’s attention to art and practice.
“Neither a retrospective of contemporary Chinese art nor an attempt to summarize its trends and phenomena, the exhibition instead shifts the focus to the creative powers of individual artists. The exhibition is intended to inspire and resonate with young Arab artists who are pursuing creativity and reflecting on their own contribution to global culture.”—Cai Guo-Qiang

What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, edited by Cai Guo-Qiang and published by Guangxi Normal University Press. An eponymous 60-minute documentary was also produced by 33 Studio and directed by Shanshan Xia.
Cai Guo-Qiang and the Princess of Qatar appreciate the exhibition catalogue entitled What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China, 2016. Photo by Wen-You Cai
Participating artists and production teams from What About the Art? Contemporary Art From China admire the Richard Serra sculpture in the Qatari desert, 2016. Photo by Wen-You Cai 
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