It is not metaphorical to describe Cai Guo-Qiang’s artworks as incendiary: his signature method of production involves igniting gunpowder on paper or silk to make ‘spontaneous’ drawings.
Recently creating a fresh series of these drawings in Melbourne for his new exhibition The Transient Landscape at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Chinese artist was assisted by NGV staff and curators who had to wear protective gear, just in case anything went awry. The works are large and one drawing in particular will take up a 360-degree space when it is installed for the exhibition, which astonishingly covers an expanse of 1000 years.
This is partly because Cai’s work is a response to China’s famous Terracotta Warriors, the funerary sculptures discovered in 1974 that have gone on to achieve global fame. The soldiers and other objects were set in pits in the ground outside the city of Xi’an about 210 BCE. According to the NGV’s curator of Asian art, Wayne Crothers, it is believed the soldiers were interred to stand guard around the burial site of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. He describes Qin as a ruthless character whose desire was to perpetuate himself into the afterlife by building his huge mausoleum and the terracotta warriors.
With those pits exposed, the rows of 8000 standing figures are now housed beneath an enormous aircraft hangar. Since their discovery, sets of the figures have gone on tour to museums around the world and, by coincidence, their first showing out of China was at the NGV in 1982, this show making a sort of homecoming. Called Guardians of Immortality, the show includes eight of the terracotta soldiers, plus two terracotta horses and about 150 other precious objects from the same region. It is being installed to run parallel to Cai’s installations, both shows flowing across a series of rooms. The combination is certain to produce stirring conversations between the exhibitions – especially as Cai’s work includes mass-installations of porcelain objects.
Crothers says it is speculated up to 7000 people were employed in building the Xi’an mausoleum, but they were not treated well by their emperor. “Tyrants are usually overthrown quite quickly and it was the Han who rebelled and later established their dynasty.” Their empire lasted much longer than Qin Shi Huang’s brief 11-year rule. The Han adapted many of the positive aspects that Qin had used to try and bring the country together – a unified writing system, consistency with currency, weights and measures, a national highway system, concerted defences and the continuance of the Great Wall construction.
“The Han learnt that survival depended on having an amicable relationship with your subjects, so they treated everyone better, they got on with the population and hence survived 400 years,” Crothers says.
With Cai’s large gunpowder drawings and two large porcelain installations, Crothers is expecting the conjoined exhibitions to reflect each other’s ambience and form part of a longer journey for viewers. The terracotta figures – seven standing soldiers, one kneeling archer, and two horses, all of them slightly larger than life-size – will be in a space that flows directly into Cai’s installation of about 10,000 porcelain birds, suspended from the ceiling.
In another room, Cai has created an installation in the shape of the sacred mountain that flanks the tomb and the warriors near Xi’an. It is covered in porcelain peony flowers; the surrounding 360-degree gunpowder drawing of peony flowers is about 30 metres in length.
Crothers says that to walk into the aircraft hangar in Xi’an and see the almost endless lines of soldiers is to experience a truly awesome sight. While there are only a few of the soldiers coming to the NGV, this means that while you can’t experience that particular sense of awe, the installation of the 10,000 birds overhead is likely to provoke an uplifting sensation intended to echo that immense scale and power.
Cai’s gunpowder drawings of the cedar forests surrounding the tombs will enhance this, as will other objects loaned from museums and archaeological sites in the districts around Xi’an. The items, including ritual objects, ancestral treasures, beautifully crafted bronze, jade and gold artefacts, adornments, ceremonial armour, and materials used to construct the country’s early palaces, come from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) through to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).
Crothers says the marriage of the two exhibitions is a result of long-held plans to do a show with Cai, and to mount a significant historical Chinese exhibition. “Cai’s career has been very strongly linked to his fascination with Chinese history,” Crothers says. “This and Chinese philosophy are strongly evident in his work to date. This is a fascinating new way to view these works together.”
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This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.