December 2013 - January 2014

The Nation Reviewed

How Cai Guo-Qiang turned a tree into a work of art

By Ashley Hay
How Cai Guo-Qiang turned a tree into a work of art

Eucalyptus at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2013. Photo by Natasha Harth, courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

‘Falling Back to Earth’ at Brisbane’s QAGOMA

It’s half past one on a cool October night, and Brisbane is mostly asleep. In the ten-minute drive from my house to the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), my taxi passes just three other cars.

Around the distinctive GOMA building, however, there’s a rush of roadblocks and pantechnicons, fluoro vests and bright lights, and the world is suddenly, surreally alive. The glass wall across the entrance has disappeared – temporarily removed – and a phalanx of 25 people manoeuvres segments of a long and graceful gum tree into the gallery. The crowd stills as the tree’s central section (weighing between five and six tonnes) is hoisted against the night sky, swung around, and lowered to be cradled on a series of padded trolleys.

“Look at it,” says Russell Storer, QAGOMA’s curatorial manager of Asian and Pacific Art. “That gorgeous shape, and its textures. It’s just beautiful.”

Branches creak and tweak as the tensions in the straps and braces ease. Someone darts forward, flicking a tape measure between different points, and the piece of trunk is raised, adjusted and settled again. Inside, it will be reconstituted like an oversized jigsaw, its conversion from tree to artwork complete. This night, and this complex relocation, are all part of the tree’s journey from Brisbane’s outer suburbs to its new home as one of the three vast installations that comprise Falling Back to Earth, the first Australian solo show for the visual artist Cai Guo-Qiang. As Storer says, “It’s a kind of readymade,” nodding to French artist Marcel Duchamp’s elevation of ordinary objects: a steel comb, an ampoule of Parisian air and – most famously – a white porcelain urinal.

The inspiration for the piece, Eucalyptus, came when the New York–based Cai, one of China’s leading contemporary artists, visited south-east Queensland in the winter of 2011. He went to Stradbroke Island and Lamington National Park with several QAGOMA curators and local naturalists. “Instead of sleeping, we went out around midnight to look for the nocturnal creatures in the rainforest,” Cai told me earlier this year. “A lot of them dwell very high up in the trees, and with our head torches we could see their eyes reflecting the light in the dark. All these different creatures – we were able to learn the different colours of the reflection of their eyes; if it’s green, what animal it is; if it’s red, if it’s yellow. It was quite a magical experience.”

Eucalyptus at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2013. Photo by Natasha Harth, courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

On these hikes, as Michael O’Sullivan, the design manager at QAGOMA, had explained, Cai fell in love with the scale of Australia’s trees. “He said, ‘I want a long tree with a beautiful arcing shape’ for the exhibition.” O’Sullivan paused. “Trees like this, technically, you don’t often see them.” But the gallery’s staff took Cai’s specifications on board and a six-month hunt for the tree began. In mid July, with only another month or so of scouting left, the curators were still searching, canvassing everyone from local councils and land developers to arborists. Not only did they need to find a distinctly Australian tree that they could relocate, from root ball to canopy, but it also had to be somehow facing the end of its natural life. “We didn’t want to just uproot a tree,” O’Sullivan said. The idea was to “repurpose” one for the show.

In early spring, they finally found the ideal candidate: 31.5 metres of spotted gum. It was growing on a steep hill within the 2860 hectares of land slated to be cleared for Greater Springfield, Australia’s “largest privately owned master planned city”, just half an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s CBD. It had the compelling kinks and thicknesses that give these trees the appearance of fleshy limbs bending, and its bark was bright with shades of mauve, silver and rose, oozing with the thick and sticky brightness of kino. The plan was to remove the tree, along with some of the rough sandstone to which it clung on its hillside, and then gently fumigate it for several days on site ahead of its introduction to the pristine space of the gallery.

“I’ve never moved a tree inside a building before,” Warren Watson, the gallery’s workshop manager, had admitted as we gazed at the light through the branches’ fine leaves in Springfield one bright September morning, “so I’m building a couple of extra weeks into the schedule. After all, it’s kind of a tree on a rock on the edge of a cliff.” He laughed. “We couldn’t have made it any harder.” 

Now, at 2 am, almost six weeks later, Watson has reached the final stages of his schedule. Taking the controls of the forklift, he inches the tree through the gaping hole at the front of the gallery. “I’ll spin the end around,” he calls as, stately and impossible, this vast piece of the outside world finds its way in.

By morning, it sits, transformed but still a little incongruous against the smooth floor and white walls of its vast new space. Over the coming weeks, it will be braced and carefully arranged, its trunk rising diagonally from the floor (where its root ball is supported by a plinth) while some of its lightly leaved branches seem to want to push beyond the gallery’s available width. Bleary-eyed staff nod to one another at the end of this unusual stretch of overtime, but it will hardly be the strangest moment of installing Cai’s show. In the gallery’s storerooms, the first of 99 slightly larger-than-life animals are packed in crates. They’re waiting to gather around the vast waterhole O’Sullivan has designed for Cai’s Heritage, the QAGOMA commission that will sit to the tree’s east. Elsewhere, the 99 slightly larger-than-life wolves of one of Cai’s most famous works, Head On, are en route to Brisbane to take their place to the tree’s west.

As O’Sullivan had said as the tree-hunt progressed, “With Cai, at every turn, there’s just another set of logistics.”

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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