Ninety-nine animals stand in a circle, heads bent, drinking from a clear pool of impossibly blue water. Predators and prey are lined up in peaceful harmony: lions and tigers together with giraffes, zebras, and antelope; a big black bear with small furry creatures. What utopian vision is this? In Cai Guo-Qiang′s allegorical installation for the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, he has abandoned his usual ephemeral pyrotechnic extravaganzas for something altogether quieter and more contemplative.
Born in Fujian Province in 1957, Cai is best known for his use of gunpowder as art medium. Together with ink and paper—those most Chinese of inventions—fireworks have played a significant role in his practice. He began igniting gunpowder on canvas and paper in the mid-1980s, a way of “drawing” that owes something to the calligraphic mark of the traditional Chinese ink painter, and something to the “Laws of Chance” of Dada artists such as Hans Arp. His first open-air pyrotechnic project took place on the River Tama, near Tokyo, in 1989. In this and his later dramatic explosive works—site-specific, performative, and ephemeral—Cai explores notions of creation and rebirth, making connections with Taoist philosophies.
Falling Back to Earth, his solo exhibition currently showing in Brisbane—and the first time that the work of a single living artist has filled the entire ground floor of the museum—consists of three monumental installations, two of them entirely new works.
Heritage, with its ninety-nine replica animals gathered around a waterhole, was inspired by Cai’s visit to the pristine environment of Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Queensland. These “creatures great and small,” at first sight examples of artful taxidermy, are in fact polystyrene casts covered in hyper-real fur made from goatskin. The title of the exhibition, Falling Back to Earth, references a 4th-century poem by Tao Yuanming, reminding us that imperial scholar painters sought the sublime in the natural world. Likewise, Cai’s installations suggest that human redemption is possible only through oneness with nature. He often uses the number ninety-nine, as it represents a sense of perfection and, at the same time, something as yet incomplete. Although my first response to Heritage was a childlike sense of wonder and delight, I couldn’t help feeling wistful as I reflected on the implications of this imaginary Eden.
In Head On, previously shown in Berlin, ninety-nine replica wolves arc through the space in a graceful curve, only to hit a plexiglass wall and slide to the floor, slinking back to begin the process all over again. An allegory in freeze-frame, is this heroic persistence in the face of impossible odds, or the foolish repetition of the same ill-fated action? In its original German setting, this work had very particular connotations. Shown here, together with Eucalyptus, a giant spotted gum transferred to the gallery space, and Heritage, it reads like a warning. Each work invites us to think about our relationship with the natural world—now, before it is too late.
Falling Back to Earth is on view at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art through May 11, 2014.