It’s an unspoken convention that museums display modern art in brightly-lit white boxes while ancient artefacts are picked out by spotlights in darkened rooms. It may be symbolic that the art of our time is to be viewed with maximum clarity, nothing concealed, while the shadows and gloom of historical displays reflect the partial state of our knowledge.
Visit the Qin tombs in Xi’an and everything is wreathed in darkness, as if to replicate the atmosphere of the underground chambers where the terracotta warriors resided for 2,300 years until their spectacular discovery in 1974. As more statues continue to be unearthed they are pieced together with painstaking care by archaelogists, with each new find adding another fragment to the jigsaw portrait of the Qin Dynasty that is slowly emerging.
When the statues have travelled internationally they have almost always been arranged in darkened rooms, as they were in 2010 at the Art Gallery of NSW, but the National Gallery of Victoria has overturned this habit by presenting the warriors in full light. It comes as a surprise, making one realise the extent to which we take methods of display for granted.
This willingness to experiment with exhibition design has been one of the reasons the NGV has outpaced every other museum in Australia in recent years. The gallery has understood the degree to which an innovative display can transform the viewer’s experience of a show. Not only does Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality present the ancient Chinese artefacts (literally) in a different light, the exhibition has been artfully interwoven with another show, The Transient Landscape by contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang.
I’ve never seen two exhibitions entwined to this degree, but Cai insists they should still be viewed as separate entities. In the catalogue he writes: “They are two rivers of time separated by two millennia, each coursing at their own individual pace through the galleries.”
Cai has never hidden his dislike of ‘artefact’ shows, which he sees as a symptom of mass tourism. Such events are often marketed as treasure troves in which the uniqueness of an object is easily overlooked. His take on the terracotta warriors is rather different as he believes the statues should not be viewed as individual works of art but as part of one massive installation, as if the Emperor Qin Shihuang were the first conceptual artist.
Despite the well-documented attempts to individualise the warriors with different hands, hairstyles and painted surfaces, they remain components in one gigantic project. They are products of a fixed set of religious and political beliefs bound up with the display and exercise of power in a manner so awesome it defies death itself.
The device that connects the two NGV shows is Cai’s creation of 10,000 porcelain birds clustered in the largest gallery, in an installation called Murmuration Landscape. Thousands of birds are suspended from the ceiling in a feat that must have cost the installers many days of toil. The shape of the cluster is meant to suggest the landscape of the Qin burial ground, while the black, staccato forms of the birds set up a visual echo of brush-and-ink painting.
The porcelain birds are Cai’s answer to the terracotta warriors. They even arose from a pit where they were blackened by gunpowder in a series of controlled explosions. They may fly in formation, but a bird will always be a conspicuous symbol of freedom. By contrast Qin Shihuang’s guardian army is a remnant of a political system that prefigures every totalitarian state in history.
The birds flaunt their liberty by popping up in unexpected places. They appear in hallways, on ceilings. Occasionally they flutter in front of the large-scale gunpowder paintings Cai produced in Melbourne in the weeks leading up to the exhibition.
These ‘paintings’ require elaborate preparations, incorporating numerous stencils, carefully measured amounts of coloured gunpowder and fuse wire, but they come to life in a split second. The nature of the process means the final look of the work cannot be precisely controlled. If Jackson Pollock had taken up pokerwork (and kept drinking), the results might look something like Cai’s Flow (Cypress) or Pulse (Mountain), two enormous examples of scorched abstract expressionism in which there are still suggestions of landscape.
The underlying themes of Transient Landscape could hardly be more traditional: cypresses, mountains and peonies, but Cai has taken an unorthodox approach to these time-honoured motifs. He describes the peony paintings, and a mound of porcelain flowers stained with gunpowder, as a “tomb” for conventional notions of beauty. Cai’s preference for peonies in their withered state transforms them into a memento morithat mocks the First Emperor’s dreams of immortality.
Qin Shihuang’s tomb was a virtual palace in which everything that had been useful or pleasurable in the ruler’s earthly life was to be made available to him in Heaven, presuming he failed in his efforts to live and reign forever. We can look back on the First Emperor as a towering personality but also a colossal overreacher. He is a Promethean figure who challenges the gods and pays the price for his presumption – dying prematurely with his tomb still unfinished and his empire so poorly secured that it would collapse within a few years.
Cai has taken a hard-headed look at Qin Shihuang’s pretentions. He says the work in Transient Landscape is devoted to “darkness, devastation and the spirits of the deceased.” The explosions he employs as part of the creative process are an implicit riposte to the Emperor’s desire to micromanage every aspect of his realm and the lives of his subjects. Cai relishes the unpredictable element in the gunpowder works. He enjoys the idea that one can blow up the existing order, but when the smoke settles there will be a new kind of order.
What we see in this show are two views of the cosmos, both deeply rooted in Chinese tradition, even if they are removed from each other by 2,300 years. Qin Shihuang is the man of power who looks towards eternity, Cai is the sage who embraces the transience of all things. It’s ultimately a no-contest, as the procession of time ensures that everything in life, both good and bad, will pass. It’s a lesson from the First Emperor that all politicians might take to heart.
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