As China’s economic might is being felt around the world, and as it flexes its military muscle in our region, the country’s soft power is also becoming more sophisticated. Once, China’s cultural exchanges were a little hokey: ping-pong diplomacy in the ’70s, serried ranks of terracotta warriors marching on Australian soil, and the presence of some 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. In an exhibition of contemporary works from the National Art Museum of China in 2011, which comprised the development of brush and ink painting, lots of communist social realism and a few more recent paintings, the word “contemporary” seemed lost in translation.
Times have changed. The once scrappy Beijing district known as the 798 Art Zone is gentrifying to the point that high rents are forcing young artists out. China has seen the value of enlisting the avant-garde in its pursuit of diplomacy, reminding us that there is dissent there: people are free to protest the building of a dam in their vicinity or the presence of homophobia in academia, or to portray the outer limits of the globalising world, as long as they don’t rock the political foundations of the Communist Party’s rule at home. The ideological political dissidents are exiles or in jail.
Cai Guo-Qiang is an incendiary artist in the literal sense of the word. He works with gunpowder. The most serenely beautiful of his works contain a destructive edge and doubtless stir up the conservative “Call that art?” brigade in his homeland China. From 1986 to 1995 he lived in Japan. Now 52, he has lived in New York since then but travels constantly for his work. Yet he is not incendiary in the symbolic way that, say, Ai Weiwei is. His exile in New York is not for political reasons. In 1999, he represented his country at the Venice Biennale. In 2008, the Chinese government called him home to devise the pyrotechnic display, Footprints of History, that opened the Beijing Summer Olympics.
At the end of May, an exhibition of Cai’s work opened at the National Gallery of Victoria alongside a parallel show of treasures and relics of Emperor Qin Shihuang. Qin first unified China in the 3rd century BC and the exhibition includes eight of the famous legion of 8000 terracotta warriors who formed a defensive phalanx a kilometre east of his tomb outside the city of Xi’an, facing the direction from which foreign intruders historically came.
Cai’s show, The Transient Landscape, sits alongside Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality on the ground floor of the NGV, and the artist himself was involved in the design of their intriguing overlap. His work has been concerned with contemporary social issues, but in Melbourne his complementary interest in ancient Chinese history and philosophy prevails.
Gunpowder has a different cultural significance in China than it has in the West. For us, its use in cannon fire signifies war. In China, where it was invented by alchemists in search of the elixir of life, its use in magnificent fireworks displays signifies infinity and immortality. The Chinese characters for gunpowder – 火药 – literally mean “fire medicine”.
Two works in the The Transient Landscape are particularly affecting. In one gallery, Transience I (Peony) and Transience II (Peony) are juxtaposed in a beautiful and compelling immersive experience. The first, which sits in the middle of the room, is a porcelain sculpture of peonies that has been scorched by gunpowder. Cai likens it to a floral burial mound. Surrounding it, and us, the walls are hung with a 31-metre work in silk, painted with bright and abstract depictions of the same flower and traced in gunpowder. The fabric was set alight in a Williamstown warehouse in May.
Beyond the room of terracotta warriors – each in a different pose, enclosed in glass cases, plus other sculptures – Cai has hung from the ceiling 10,000 starlings made of porcelain smudged with black gunpowder in a work called Murmuration. The Chinese characters for 10,000 also refer to eternity. Cai has compared the flight of the black birds against the white ceiling and walls of the gallery room to the ink-brush paintings he grew up watching his artist father make in Guangzhou: the black strokes capture essence rather than mimesis on the white paper.
Similar birds are dotted elsewhere in the contiguous exhibitions, providing a light touch in visual continuity. Visitors stand for minutes at a time craning their heads to look upwards at a what seems like a moment in the flock’s swooping flight captured in time.
Cai’s work and the terracotta warriors are in different rooms but are interleaved. The ancient material includes 170 objects spanning 1200 years. The artefacts in the first room of the shows span cultural eras, and the materials – metals, jade, wood – and the intricacy of the craft are as interesting as their objects’ purpose. There are jade ritual disks, signifying wealth and longevity and still found in Chinese homes, and pendants from the Warring States era of 400s BC; a jade door-ring holder in the form of a mythical beast from the Han dynasty in the 200s BC; belt hooks in jade, gold and aquamarine from the eastern Han dynasty. A bronze tiger with her cub in her mouth, one of the oldest objects in the show, dates from the Western Zhou dynasty in 1046–771 BC.
The warriors themselves are lifelike and dynamic up close. One is down on one knee, his hands to one side. Another is standing, with a foot jutting out sideways, his body and arms swung in that direction. The sculptures would have been coloured when they were made – lifelike skin, dark hair, bright clothing – though time has worn the colour away to what we now consider a tasteful classical dun. (Remember how disappointed many people were when the Sistine Chapel ceiling was restored.)
Most beautiful, perhaps, are the large-scale, intricately sculpted groupings of carriages and horses with drivers. The horses are piebald, their trappings decorative, and the wheels have many spokes. The formally dressed drivers are shaded by large umbrellas. Another room contains the small-scale sculptures of attendants, domestic objects, even hens, which would have been buried with the dead. The afterlife of kings was expected to be as resplendent as their earthly empires and all the trappings were needed.
The first room of the shows contains ancient artefacts. The final room contains video of Cai’s Williamstown “explosion event”, all running fire and smoke. Between them lies a cultural and technological journey in time.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription