Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has a long standing relationship with the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) that began with his participation in the second Asia Pacific Triennial in 1996 and continued with the following edition in 1999.
It is therefore fitting that Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) is currently playing host to Cai’s first solo exhibition in Australia and that two of the three major works in the exhibition were inspired by the artist’s travels across Queensland.
Occupying all 3,000 square meters of GOMA’s ground floor, “Falling Back to Earth” is an immersive exploration of the relationship between human beings and nature that signals a shift in Cai’s focus from the extraterrestrial to the terrestrial.
“I am shifting my focus from the universe and cosmos back to earth, although the aesthetic is still the same,” said Mr Cai. “It is still surreal and poetic, and I am still interested in the unseen spirituality. I am now thinking more about the earth, our surroundings, and the physical world.”
For the title of the exhibition Cai drew inspiration from 4th-century poet Tao Yuanming’s well-known prose poem, Ah, homeward bound I go!
“The text captures the concept behind the exhibition, and expresses the idea of going home, returning to the harmonious relationship between man and nature, and re-embracing the tranquility in the landscape,” explained Mr Cai.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is an epic new installation entitled “Heritage” (2013) which consists of 99 incredibly life-like replicas of animals drinking together peacefully at the edge of a pool filled with 170 tons of water.
Inspired by the artist’s visit to Queensland’s Stradbroke Island, “Heritage” brings together animals from all over the world – both predators and prey – in a utopian dreamscape that is punctuated periodically by a drip of water emanating from above.
Situated along GOMA’s central Long Gallery is the second of the two new commissions, a 31 meter Eucalyptus tree poised gracefully on its side as an object of contemplation and meditation.
Inspired by the ancient trees of Lamington National Park in South East Queensland and rescued from a plantation earmarked for clearing for urban community development, “Eucaplyptus,” 2013 is presented as an unfinished work that Cai invites viewers to help complete by suggesting what it should become once the exhibition is over.
Also included in the exhibition is one of Cai’s signature works, “Head On,” 2006 which is appearing in Australia for the first time. Commissioned by Deutsche Bank, Berlin, “Head On,” 2006 consists of 99 life-size wolf sculptures leaping en masse into the air and colliding with a glass wall.
To find out more about “Falling Back to Earth” and his new installation “Heritage,” BLOUIN ARTINO Australia conducted an interview with Cai.
Your new commission for the Queensland Art Gallery, the serene and tranquil “Heritage,” seems to be a deviation from your signature fire and explosion works. What inspired this shift in the direction of your practice from the explosive to the serene, and is it a permanent shift in your practice or a temporary deviation?
People are diverse and rich in their ever-changing ways, and I am the same. Just like the moon that has both a bright part and a dark part in the shadows, it is not unusual to make both explosive and tranquil works. People normally pay attention to my brighter, more explosive works.
The monumental and the spectacular are key characteristics of your most well-known works. What is the significance of size and scale in your practice? Do you feel that you are able to express yourself better through large-scale works?
Yes, I do have this tendency. I came from a small town; as a young boy I used to look up at the starry sky and wished to embrace the vast universe. As a grown man and a foreigner working in different countries across the world, when I create my works, I need to speak louder in order to be heard. Since the early 1990's, I have been working in large spaces in art biennials, and as biennials have become larger over the years, when museums invite me to create an exhibition, they expect me to open up their gallery spaces.
Of course, I am better at making larger scale works. Larger works are silly enough to be fun. It took 99 animals and 170 tons of water to fill the large space at GOMA!
“Heritage” was inspired by a trip to Queensland’s Stradbroke Island. What was it about Stradbroke Island that inspired you to create this work, and how did you manifest those thoughts and feelings in the “Heritage” installation?
At first, Queensland struck me with its beauty, and it didn't seem to have any serious problems. That made it more challenging for me to find a starting point for the exhibition at GOMA.
As the clear blue waters, the white sandy beaches of Stradbroke Island, and the rich palette of colors on the bottom of Brown Lake took my breath away, I came to realize that this paradise-like environment actually highlights the serious problems on Earth. Everywhere on Earth should have been just as beautiful.
The distance between Stradbroke Island and Brisbane, and the distance between Australia and the rest of the world inspired me to create a utopian scene, and the tableau in Heritage reminds us that this scene would be impossible in reality.
The title “Heritage” implies that it is something we humans are afraid to inherit, so it contradicts the utopian vision.
When asked what advice you would give to young contemporary artists with regards to the market for the work, you said that they should not sell their work at auction. What was your reason for giving this advice? What role do you believe the art market has played in your rise to fame?
My experience may not be relevant or apply to everyone else, because I am not represented by any commercial galleries or dealers. I have chiefly been relying on public organizations such as museums to slowly realize each project one by one.
After my works eventually appeared more frequently on the art market, it helped the pricing of my works when museums wish to acquire them. When I wish to support charitable causes, I am able to use my work to contribute in some way.
What I am trying to say is that young artists should not rely on the art market or on auctions. The sale of an artwork is not the purpose of why artists make art.
You have mentioned that you are a big kid at heart, but have also alluded do a recent process of maturation. It would seem that with “Heritage” you are trying to reconcile the “inner child” with the wise and self-assured senior figure of the art world that you have become. Is this the case?
As an artist, I am a big kid at heart who wants to create a visually compelling scene for myself and for others, with all kinds of animals lowering their heads to drink water from a pond, to put everyone – including myself – in awe.
At the same time, I am an adult living in contemporary society. Like everyone else, I think about the issues our society faces. These two sides of me exist at the same time.
It must have been difficult creating 99 animals that are so life-like in appearance. Could you explain how many people and how look it took to create the “Heritage” installation and what the biggest challenges were with regards to the creation process?
It took fifty artisans in China eight months to create the 99 animals in Heritage. The biggest challenge was the animals' fur: they were pieced together from goat hair of different shades and colors. Matching the correct colors and patch sizes was the most time consuming process.