Overshadowing the Empire

Published June 27, 2019
Two poles of Chinese art: terracotta warriors & Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang gives the impression of being a truly happy man. Tall and lean, he has the crew cut favoured by the marines, but unlike those artists who need to appear terribly earnest, he is quick with a smile and a laugh.

Why wouldn’t he be happy? Cai was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, a small village in Fujian Province, and is now among the most sought-after artists in the world. A creator of lavish spectacles, he designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and has exhibited regularly at the world’s leading museums. Among his most recent clients are the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Prado in Madrid and the Pushkin in Moscow.

Cai’s success has allowed him to stand outside of the artist-dealer relationships that play such a dominant role in the making of reputations and prices. He is his own agent, who can wait for the world to come to him. When he’s not travelling for a project Cai divides his time between a multi-storey brick studio in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, renovated by Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA; and a New Jersey house and studio designed by Frank Gehry. He has a team of assistants that manage all the details, while he gets on with the business of being inspired.

One of Cai’s ongoing sources of happiness is that he has been able to extend his childhood indefinitely by making a career from setting off explosions. “It reflects a part of my personality that’s like a naughty little boy,” he admits. “It satisfies a violence within my character.”

How Cai Guo-Qiang makes paintings

For the past couple of months Melbourne has been the site for Cai’s explosive activities. These are not random acts of destruction but Cai’s way of making paintings and sculptures for an ambitious exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria that pairs his work with the terracotta warriors of the Qin Dynasty.

For the NGV it’s the next stage in an innovative international exhibition program that has paired east and west, past and present. In 2016 there was Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei – a show that drew 400,000 visitors. Earlier this year, Dutch printmaker, M.C.Escher, was coupled with Japanese designers, Nendo, in one of the most original shows ever seen in this country.

This winter Melbourne will host Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape alongside Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, in a display that encompasses more than 2,300 years of Chinese art. Since they were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, the warriors have become one of China’s leading tourist attractions, bringing more than a million visitors annually to Xi’an, the former capital. So far more than 8,000 figures have been excavated, providing China with a significant cultural export. This is the third time the warriors have been seen in Australia, initially on a record-breaking tour of the nation in 1993, then in 2010 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Cai has enjoyed an equally fruitful relationship with Australia. Despite two misfires, including a warehouse explosion in Brisbane in 1996, his work has featured prominently in the Asia Pacific Triennial, and in the Sydney Biennale. In 2013 he was the subject of a solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.

This is not the only time Cai has exhibited with the warriors. In 1994, when the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo held an exhibition devoted to the First Emperor of China, he created an accompanying installation and performance piece. Melbourne, however, provides Cai with his first oportunity to design a display in which he can work with the actual artefacts, reflecting on the Chinese cultural traditions that have been one of his preoccupations.


Gunpowder painting

“I was young when I first saw the terracotta army,” he recalls, “and it made a strong impression on me. But on previous occasions in Japan and Denmark, when I was able to show in close proximity to them, only a few of the warriors were made available and this didn’t convey how grandiose and powerful the presentation is in Xi’an, where you can see the entire infantry.”

“I don’t intend to be entirely integrated with the warriors, but I want to create a kind of intense relationship between the exhibitions.

“In the gallery where two chariots and eight soldiers are displayed, I’m putting 10,000 porcelain birds overhead in the form of a murmuration that is constantly changing. From a distance the murmuration will echo the shape of the mound where Qin Shihuang is buried. It will also be like a three-dimensional version of a traditional ink-wash painting. These 10,000 birds will compensate for the small number of warriors on the ground. The birds are like the shadow of an empire that will be dispersed everywhere in the gallery.”

Cai designed a hundred different prototypes for the birds, which were manufactured in his hometown of Quanzhou. The final phase was to include the small sculptures in a controlled gunpowder explosion, discolouring the surfaces and making each an individual artefact. There’s an obvious relationship with the terracotta warriors which were constricted from eight prototypes but individualised by variations in hands and facial features. They were also painted in vivid colours, although after 2,000 years underground the colour has disappeared.

Kneeling archer

When the ancient Chinese said “10,000” they meant an infinite number. Hence, the First Emperor’s claim that his dynasty would last 10,000 years, was another way of saying “forever”. In fact it lasted a mere 16 years. Upon the death of Qin Shihuang in 210 BCE, his achievement immediately began to fall apart.

It had taken the Qin 600 years to rise to ultimate power, through centuries of wars between neighbouring states. As supreme ruler Qin Shihuang consolidated his hard-won empire with an extensive public works program and frequent tours of inspection. Every guidebook will tell you that as well as unifying China the First Emperor extended the great wall, built a network of roads; standardised weights and measures, the currency, and the Chinese script. The Qin empire also laid out a blueprint for the authoritarian state that has been an inspiration for history’s tyrants and despots.

One theory for the rapid collapse of Qin Shihuang’s empire is that it depended too heavily on a cult of personality. Another suggestion is that his monumental building programs simply overstretched the available resources.

The biggest building project of all was the Emperor’s tomb, which reputedly employed some 700,000 workers, and remained unfinished at the time of his death. It was a first-class cruise to the after-life, laden with everything the ruler needed, guarded by his personal army. For Qin Shihuang this was an elaborate insurance policy because his most fervent wish was to live forever. He sent envoys in search of an elixir of immortality, and drank potions concocted by his household alchemists, which probably shortened rather than extended his life, due to the heavy metals they contained.


Terracotta Army relaxes at home in Xi’an

The Emperor’s extreme need for order and control, which led to an attempt to exert sovereignty over death itself is contradicted by Cai’s explosion works, which are ephemeral in nature and random in their impact. The show will also contain a series of large-scale paintings made by detonating gun powder and pigment.

Even the theme of these paintings is ephemeral. Cai has chosen to depict peonies – the floral symbol of China, a traditional symbol of purity, honour and prosperity. His preference though is to depict the flowers in a withered state as he finds that more “touching” than full bloom.

It’s a typical gesture for Cai, whose work is filled with traditional Chinese concepts and symbols subject to subtle transformations that alter the original meaning. In a cross-millennia dialogue with the terracotta warriors Qin Shihuang’s army will be physically overshadowed by Cai’s flock of birds, which may be viewed as a symbol of freedom. Cai’s withered peonies are his response to the Emperor’s quest for immortality. Where Qin Shihuang tried to stop the clock, Cai – in line with the ancient wisdom of the I Ching – believes that change is the only constant.

Cai is a man of the 21stcentury with a strong interest in science, but he is unwilling to relinquish age-old Chinese concepts such as Qi– literally “breath”, but in reality the vital force that animates all living entities. It’s an idea that orginated long before the Qin Dynasty, and is still taken very seriously in China.

“I always feel there is a relationship between gun powder and the invisible Qi circulating among the inhabitants of earth,” he says. “I’m interested in the most recent scientific developments in the study of the universe, such as dark matter and dark energy, but from these concepts I start thinking about the invisible world, about my relatives, my ancestors, who have passed away. Have they also become part of this dark matter? My grandmother, my father? It makes me feel more warm and emotional towards the universe, towards this world of physics.”

Since 1989 Cai has been making works in a series called Project for Extraterrestrials. He is quite serious about addressing himself the universe but this is also a way of saying that his works are not being made for any one group of people.

“In China I never wanted to be part of any of the avant-garde movements because, just like the communist system, these groups tended to look upon art as a tool to transform society. But I don’t believe in collectivism, I don’t belong to any group, I don’t subscribe to the superiority of any ‘ism’ or any particular culture. So I am boundless. I can have a conversation with scientists. I can have a conversation with the aliens.”

Although Cai is known as a maker of grand-scale public art events, he still sees his work as essentially personal. He says: “I’m very aware that the power of art resides in its loneliness and fragility. That’s what it is when it’s real. Once it becomes a tool for the authorities, or the priests, we have to be wary.”

“I’m actually quite a lonesome person. My work is a space-time tunnel for me that transports me to a moment when I can communicate with a lot of people. But once that moment is over I retreat to a dark corner by myself.”



Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality

Cai Guo-Qiang: Transient Landscape

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,

24 May – 13 October, 2019


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June, 2019