Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth
23 November 2013 – 11 May 2014
Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) Brisbane, Australia
There’s always been a sense of theatre in Cai Guo-Qiang’s work.
The 55-year-old Chinese-born contemporary artist trained at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in stage design, and his work since then has included numerous genres within an ‘art’ label, including installation, video, performance art and gunpowder explosions.
In fact prior to this current extraordinary exhibition, Guo-Quiang first met Queensland audiences when he participated in the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial and his gunpowder stock exploded in a storage accident. In 1999, the 99 (one of his favourite numbers) small aluminium boats he was intending to set alight on the Brisbane River unceremoniously sank to the bottom.
These difficulties might be enough to deter a lesser artist but for Guo-Quiang they are simply part and parcel of the artistic process, or “the work’s destiny” as he calls it.
This time, however, the risks have paid off handsomely, with his massive Falling Back to Earth installation – the first time ever that all 3000 square metres of GOMA’s ground floor has been dedicated to a single artist.
Heritage, the first room in the series, is an installation of 99 life-size replicas of animals, including pandas, tigers, bears, giraffes and kangaroos. The animals are gathered at a watering hole, a massive 170 tonne blue lake built into the room, with sand around the edges. The eerie quiet is only broken by the occasional single drip of water. It was inspired by a visit to Stradbroke Island, according to Gui-Quiang, which in itself is enough gives pause for thought – since the connection is more of a parachute jump of the imagination, than a leap.
But this is art as metaphor, and this peaceful gathering of predator and prey brings home clearly a message of environmentalism and the desperate need for peace in a war-ridden world.
As awe-inspiring as Heritage is, it is still dwarfed by the Head On installation, in which 99 replicas of wolves hurl themselves through the air, only to crash into a glass wall, fall, and begin their journey again. This room positively bristles (apologies for the pun) with the notions of freedom and captivity, wilderness and city, and sadly futile (and endless) endeavour.
The other installations in the exhibition include Eucalyptus – a 31-metre-long tree salvaged from an urban redevelopment project, and the Tea Room – a quiet space for reflection and contemplation at the end of the somewhat tumultuously imaginative journey for both man and beast.