Cai Guo-Qiang is an artist who understands spectacle. In an international art scene as crowded as a commuter train at rush hour he creates large-scale installations that stop viewers in their tracks. Where so many artists are identified with a trademark style, Cai has managed to regularly turn over his themes and techniques. What all his recent works have in common is that they are conceived on a grand scale.
Born in Fujian province in 1957 Cai began his career as a modestly talented painter but would make his reputation using gunpowder to create large-scale drawings. By the time the Queensland Art Gallery invited him to participate in 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) of 1993 Cai’s gunpowder works had been seen around the world. The APT proposal was extraordinarily ambitious – an explosion of three hydrogen balloons in the sky above the Brisbane River, lighting a fuse that would slither across the water and along the banks. It was envisaged as a meeting of the Chinese dragon and the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent.
The reality was somewhat different, ending in a massive explosion in the warehouse where the gunpowder was being stored. Three years later Cai tried again, with a project for the third APT involving a flotilla of 99 small boats, each carrying a blue flame. This time the entire fleet sank to the bottom of the river.
With such a record it argues a degree of courage for Cai to attempt a third major project in Queensland. It’s not as if he’s short of opportunities to exhibit his wares. In 2008 he was given a full-scale survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which travelled to Beijing and Bilboa. Three years later he became the first foreign artist to be featured at Mathaf, the new Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. Last year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an even bigger exhibition of Cai’s work, called Ladder to the Sky. There was also the small matter of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which he was Director of Visual and Special Effects.
This list barely scratches the surface when one considers the number of international engagements Cai has undertaken over the past decade. He has returned to Queensland as one of today’s most famous and successful artists, aware that he had unfinished business.
Instead of plotting another cosmic extravaganza on the Brisbane River, Cai decided he would spend some time immersing himself in the life and landscape of northern Australia, thinking through his options. The result is an exhibition called Falling Back to Earth, which consists of three gargantuan installations.
If this sounds like poor value for money it’s worth noting that these three pieces take up almost the entire ground floor of the Gallery of Modern Art. This time there are no fireworks, no explosions, no cars floating in space. As suggested by the title, (borrowed from the 4th Century poet, Tao Yuanming), Cai has gone back to nature. This is quite a contrast to an early series of works called Project for Extraterrestials, which produced gunpowder drawings intended to be viewed from space, including a 1993 scheme to extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 metres.
Cai has detached his gaze from the heavens and focused on the Queensland countryside. The first thing one sees upon entering this show is an enormous gum tree lying on its side. The tree was salvaged from an urban redevelopment site on the outskirts of Brisbane and transported to South Bank at unthinkable effort and expense. Crowding out the gallery’s broad central foyer it makes a striking impression, but one almost feels as if the credit belongs to the transport and installation crew. Cai’s contribution was to have the idea, choose the tree, and then philosophise about what it all means.
The title of the work is simplicity itself: Eucalyptus, but the artist’s rationale is ingenious. Walking through the Lamington National Park – a major source of inspiration for the great Queensland landscape painter, William Robinson – Cai began thinking about the primordial supercontinent of Gondwana. In his mind the towering, aged gum trees came to embody that sense of “deep time” when much of the world was joined in one land mass. Curator, Russell Storer, suggests Eucalyptus embodies the idea that “we are each connected to all living things, plant and animal, at the most fundamental level.”
This may be true but it’s rather a large generalisation. The suspicion remains that the intellectual or spiritual justification for this displaced tree is less important than the need to put something really big into the foyer.
Presumably the tree will be chopped up for timber when the show is over. There will be a greater degree of difficulty with Heritage, the new installation that has been acquired by the QAG for its permanent collection. The gum tree may raise viewers’ eyebrows but Heritage is a jaw-dropping sight. Clustered around a vast, circular, turquoise-coloured pool of water, Cai has placed 99 animals from all over the planet, stooping to take a drink.
Kangaroos crouch next to giraffes. Polar bears, camels, leopards, monkeys, wombats, pandas, zebras, elephants, grizzly bears, tigers and many other creatures are so thirsty they seem to have forgotten that some of them are predators and others prey. It’s the greatest multi-species détente since Noah’s Ark.
Heritage may look like a taxidermy festival but each of these animals has been sculpted from polystyrene and covered with goatskin specially treated to resemble the relevant pelt. It’s a remarkable illusion that has kept a large Chinese workshop busy for many months. The installation conjures up thoughts of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ of Isaiah 11, although Cai is probably not thinking of the Biblical reference but a more generalised allegory of enemies being able to live peacefully with one another. It’s a fable of multiculturalism, that much-debated idea that stirs up so much needless tension. Ideologues always rail angrily against this concept but what’s the problem? Australia is already a functioning multicultural society and much better for it.
The initial spark for Heritage came from a visit to Stradbroke Island with its white sandy beaches, although the actual menagerie might only be found in the Garden of Eden. Human beings are conspicuously absent from Cai’s paradise. The animals turn their backs on us, as if to negate our existence.
In the unlikely event the Queensland government is looking for another tourist attraction it might consider finding a permanent location for Heritage, otherwise it will take up a lot of space in QAG’s storage.
The final work in Falling Back to Earth is Head On (2006), an installation originally commissioned for the Guggenheim museum in Berlin. This piece features 99 facsimile wolves, many of them suspended in mid-air as they hurl themselves towards a glass wall. The flying wolves, the moment of impact and disarray, are all captured in one freeze frame. Visitors wander around and among the wolves in what is swiftly becoming Brisbane’s favourite photo opportunity.
The wolves and glass wall probably made more symbolic sense in Berlin, but the image of rapacious animals beating themselves against an invisible barrier has universal significance. It might be taken as a bleak comment on human behaviour, or at least on the dangers of mindless conformity.
As a Chinese artist, Cai is in an excellent position to make such observations. He was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and later a participant in the ‘85 New Wave movement, when artists threw off the burden of Socialist Realism and began to experiment with western styles. After the forced conformity of the Cultural Revolution, the opportunity to sample work from elsewhere brought a sense of liberation. Before long those copycats became rugged individualists. Of the figures of that generation Cai is one of most notable freethinkers – an artist who is always stretching the boundaries of what is achievable.
Demonstrating his versatility at the opening of this show Cai orchestrated a performance by a traditional Chinese singer; didgeridoo virtuoso, William Barton, and a local schoolchildren’s chorus. He was, however, outdone by the QAG, who have published a book that transforms the artist into a cartoon character – “A Boy Named Cai” – for the usual over-the-top Children’s Program. I know it’s outrageous to suggest children might be able to look at works of art like adults instead of being treated like babies, but this is my heretic belief. One might have thought the spectacle of 99 animals drinking from a turquoise pool, or 99 wolves flying through space, would be enough of a fairy tale for viewers young and old.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14 December, 2013