Curious to experiment with western art forms such as oil painting, Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy and his work has since crossed multiple art mediums including drawing, installation, and video art. This experience in theater art prepared Cai for the elements of spectacle and performance seen in his later large scale gunpowder works.
Cai began exploring the possibilities of incorporating gunpowder in his paintings while he was living in Japan from 1986 to 1995. As the gunpowder exploded, it would leave traces of burnt marks on the painting, creating seemingly random and uncontrolled patterns. As part of the generation that witnessed the Cultural Revolution in China, Cai saw in gunpowder the perfect medium to create art that was a contrast to the controlled environment and academicism found in Chinese art at the time.
Since arriving in New York in 1995 on an artist exchange program, Cai has developed his artistic career full force with special emphasis on his gunpowder art and installations. He had held many major solo exhibitions including Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 2006. His retrospective I Want to Believe opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in February 2008 traveled to the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in August 2008, and then to the Guggenheim Bilbao in March 2009. In 2011, Cai held a solo exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, his first ever in a Middle Eastern country. In 2012, he appeared in three solo exhibitions: Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Cai Guo-Qiang: Spring at the Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou, China, and A Clan of Boats at the Faurschou Foundation, Copenhagen, Denmark.