Exciting contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang is a busy man. This week he had exhibitions open in three major galleries: The Guggenheim in New York, The Cleveland Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Victoria. Happily for Australians, Cai – who was born in China and now works between New York and Shanghai – was in Melbourne for Thursday’s opening at NGV International, where his exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape is running in parallel with Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality.

Cai Guo-Qiang with his installation Murmuration in Cai Guo-Qing: The Transient Landscape at NGV International. Photograph © Eugene Hyland

The section of the exhibition by Cai (pronounced Tsai) features an extraordinary installation of 10,000 porcelain starlings scorched by gunpowder – one of the signature elements that Cai famously uses in his work. Called Murmuration, the birds hang from the ceiling throughout both parts of the exhibition, creating what Cai called “an emotional thread that guides the visitors”. They culminate in a huge, dark swarm, creating a three-dimensional impression of a calligraphic drawing of the sacred Mount Li, the site of the ancient tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who commissioned the Terracotta Warriors to protect him in death.

Cai has also created a sculpture of porcelain peonies, resembling a grave of flowers, and three large gunpowder paintings including a stunningly coloured piece on silk called Transience II (Peony), which was created in Melbourne at a warehouse in Williamstown, and which traces the brief life of the luscious peony (an iconic symbol in Chinese art) from bud to blossom to decay. To create it, Cai drew complex patterns in gunpowder on 11 sections of silk. He then ignited the gunpowder which scorched the silk canvas leaving a work that eloquently references the fragility of life and culture.

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Murmuration at NGV International © Cai Guo-Qiang, photograph © Tobias Titz Photography

At the media launch at the NGV, Limelight asked Cai why he had chosen to be at the Melbourne opening. Speaking through an interpreter, he says, “The exhibitions at the other two institutions are relatively straightforward and before we came here we had already started the installation at the Guggenheim Museum. And this exhibition is particularly challenging because of the 10,000 birds. Even though the project is very difficult, the NGV staff did a particularly good job as we know that staff can only hang 40 birds in a day, so they have spent so much time and effort on it and they are really talented, really good at it. The birds are all flying in a very natural way and come together very spontaneously.”

Cai admits that when he was approached by the NGV to create an exhibition in dialogue with an exhibition of Terracotta Warriors and other ancient Chinese treasures, he wasn’t sure at first.

“I was so not interested because I like to have my solo exhibitions so I can do whatever I want,” he says with a laugh. “I visited the Terracotta Warriors [which were discovered in China’s Shaanxi province in 1974] when I was very young with my girlfriend, and now she’s my wife, and I remember I saw thousands of Terracotta Warriors below me and I was so touched and almost shocked by this powerful representation. But then I also realised that thousands of them were crafted individually to be buried underground rather than to be seen; that is really cool, it is such a conceptual practice, it even sounds avant-garde today.”

Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Warriors Pit 1,  Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BCE) © Shaanxi History Museum

“Then I made exhibitions around the world and I saw several exhibitions of Terracotta Warriors. Each time only five or eight or 10 of them were on display so that presentation cannot at all portray the large-scale presentation of the thousands of Warriors. So then, I decided if I were to do this exhibition I will bring try to bring the truth of the Terracotta Warriors to the exhibition.”

Asked if that is why he used thousands of birds in his installation, he says: “This is one of the important reasons. Ten thousand in Chinese culture represents infinity, so [choosing 10,000 birds] represents the infinite spirit and also the shadow of China’s imperial past. So, with the birds the audience not only see the Chinese ancient past but also today’s China and its relationship with the world today – its speed, its complexity, chaos and uncertainty.”

The birds were made in Duhea in Fujian province, a porcelain producing region near Cai’s hometown of Quanzhou. He created 100 different moulds, and 100 starlings were made from each. The birds were then shipped to Melbourne, where they were scorched. Thus, just as the Warriors are individual with different faces, outfits and hair styles depending on their rank, so the birds are all different. “I first created 100 different prototypes of the birds and after the explosion of gunpowder none of them look the same,” says Cai.

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Murmuration © Cai Guo-Qiang, photograph © Tobias Titz Photography

Explaining the process, he says: “When I was exploding these 10,000 birds I first worked together with the team to build three very long trenches and then we placed all the birds inside these long trenches. We sprinkled gunpowder on the birds and then covered them with cardboard. The long trenches at that time strike me as like the pit for the Warriors, and they actually share a few similarities. The pit of Terracotta Warriors was buried underground and later covered with soil and people built houses above it so in the case of the exploding Murmuration this process is like a burial ritual. The birds were buried under the covers in the trenches and after ignition they were smothered in smoke underneath for a while.”

“I want to use the gunpowder and the smoke to connect with the contemporary, to speed up the flow of time, because the Terracotta Warriors were made 2000 years ago. The gunpowder speeds up time, gunpowder is like a time machine, it imbued the birds with a sense of ancientness that is dated back 2000 years ago like the Terracotta Warriors. It is almost like it made the birds ancient in a very short period of time because of the power of the gunpowder.”

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Transience II (Peony) and peony sculpture © Cai Guo-Qiang, photograph © Sean Fennessy

The peony porcelain sculpture “symbolises decay and death. It is a burial of flowers,” says Cai. Asked if that is also a reference to the burial of the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, who ordered the construction of a life-sized army to be buried in the tomb with him and guide him to immortality, he says: “Yes of course it is connected to the Terracotta Warriors but all the works are comments on life and power. I wanted to say that the guardians of immortality cannot safeguard the reign and power of the emperor, perhaps only transience is eternal.”

Wayne Crothers, Senior Curator, Asian Art for the NGV, says that the Gallery has had its eye on Cai for a few years, hoping to find the right time to bring him here. “The Gallery has had some relationship with him. We haven’t had an exhibition [of his work] but some of the gallery staff have worked with him before. As I said, as a Gallery we have definitely been wanting to do something with him. He has made several visits over the last five years in discussions about what that might be so the relationship was already in place, it was just finding the right opportunity to do something which was exciting and hadn’t been done before. It’s interesting, no one had taken that historical [aspect] and put it in dialogue with a contemporary artist.”

Installation view of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape at NGV International. Photograph © Tobias Titz Photography

Crothers says that the NGV had also wanted to do a major Chinese historical exhibition for some years now. “The Warriors capture the imagination of the public, they are the most iconic ancient treasures from China,” he says. “But we also wanted to do more than just exhibit the Warriors, we wanted it to be historically informative and also a contemplative introduction to where Chinese social character and society has come from.” Thus, as well as eight Terracotta Warriors, two life-sized horses and two half-sized replica bronze chariots, each drawn by four horses, the exhibition features 160 ancient Chinese treasures, as well as the work by Cai.

“For many years, we had recognised Cai as one of the leading and most exciting contemporary artists. With his use of gunpowder and paper and silk and porcelain, and also that evocative connection with history, his personal fascination with philosophy, especially Chinese philosophy, and literature that he has, and the value he puts behind ancestor worship himself, we really saw the two as being the most logical, most appropriate, exciting and inspiring [way to create parallel exhibitions]. The penny dropped about two years ago, that bringing them together would be exceptional for us to curate, and create a show especially for Melbourne.”

Installation view of Kneeling Archer at Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Photograph © Sean Fennessy

The Warriors are displayed in clean glass cabinets, with a mirror at the back, against a white background. “A lot of people who have gone through [the exhibition] this morning say ‘oh, the display is so white and beautiful and it makes the objects look exquisite’. And they said that have seen the Warriors before but never displayed in a simple white context,” says Crothers. “There is always this feeling of antiquity being established around them in the design. So, we didn’t want to take that road. Of course, the antiquity is beautiful but I think for the shape and quality of the objects to be appreciated, you need to clear away all the noise around it, and for it to be well lit. The smaller objects also look beautiful. And we wanted people to be able to get up close and personal. If you have them on open display you have to have a huge stand-off area. We didn’t want to put them in a group. What’s the point of trying to replicate how they were found, [when you’ve only got a few]? You can’t,” says Crothers, explaining that no museum or gallery in the world is allowed more than 10 Terracotta Warriors at a time.

Installation view of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Photograph © Sean Fennessy

“We feel that with the mirror, apart from being extremely contemporary, you get to see both sides. They disappear into the distance, and you can get up close to them. We are trying to create an atmosphere where you can really journey back and feel the spirit and the soul, almost time travel where you can stand in front of something and look into their face and feel perhaps you’ve journeyed a little bit with them, and that they have taken you back to a different world.”

Like the symbolic peonies, the reign of the first emperor – who unified China – lasted a short time; just 15 years. “The warriors themselves only lasted for a short period of time before they were all smashed. No warrior has ever been found in one piece, they were smashed basically three or four years after the first emperor died,” explains Crothers. “The Qin dynasty was defeated and turned over by an insurgency from their own ranks and renamed the Han dynasty and during the rebellion they ran through the underground passageways, destroying things, and burning the beams and it all collapsed in.” Thus, the Warriors we see exhibited now have all been restored.

The NGV is hoping to raise the money to acquire Cai’s Murmuration. “We don’t have a work by Cai in the collection,” says Crothers. “He’s noted as being a very important contemporary artist, so we’d very much to try and buy that.”

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape, is at NGV International until October 13

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