The refreshing blend of the contemporary and the traditional
Authored by Bianca Mataua
Currently hosted by the NGV, the Terracotta Warrior/Cai Guo-Qiang exhibit is an absolute must see. As it is only on for a few more weeks I advise to go see it, if you're in Melbourne this weekend! Here is some information that may help you on your trip.
Although it is a bit on the pricey end, it is well worth the trip and money and I will show you why. Remember it does end on the 13 October 2019 so I would remind you to visit as soon as possible.
Located at the NGV (National Gallery Victoria) international near Flinders Street and across from the Park, parking and train/tram access is easily accessible. It is also a bustling part of Melbourne City and is situated near good restaurants and shopping, giving you so many options for a nice day out. As I am partial to vegetarianism, I would highly recommend Lord of Fries for a quick ethical lunch and a tram ride (free in the green zone) to other parts of the inner city.
Tickets are reasonably easy to purchase, but confusing where to line-up. NGV members have the privilege to skip the queue (line) and go straight to the counter on the left-hand side closest to the exhibit. Members from the public must line-up at the skinny door at the furthest right of the counter. This can get a bit confusing but once you go a couple times you get the handle of it. Once you purchase your tickets you proceed to the exhibit queue directly to the left of the ticket counter. The line is usually pretty short as security can scan tickets efficiently.
I don't know what I was expecting with this exhibition, but it definitely was not what I entered into. The first thing I immediately noticed was the quiet peace. The lobby of the NGV is pretty hectic with the store at the very front and the different exhibitions going on at different levels, so the absolute quiet when you entered into this exhibition was the first thing you noticed. The warm lighting, stark white and clean lines assisted in this feeling of peaceful quiet. It was like it enveloped you in a comforting and peaceful way.
The architecture played an important role in flow and feel. When you entered from the large wide open lobby into the exhibition space, you enter into a small somewhat lowered ceiling room that is round. There is a round exhibit featuring ritual objects and ancestral treasures from the Qin, Zhou and Han Dynasty with the Jade objects taking centre stage. But, as you move around the round central display you see the beginnings of Cai Guo-Qiang's large scale abstract piece on paper that stretches the back wall.
Titled "Flow (Cyprus)", this piece is gunpowder on Japanese Hemp paper. Born in Qianzhou in 1967, Cai Guo-Qiang now lives in NY and completed this particular piece in a large warehouse in Dehua, Fujian province. The piece is just filled with movement and texture. The piece is accentuated by charred flying birds above the piece. It is an interesting contrast to the ancestral pieces in the central exhibit in the middle of the room introducing traditional materials but a contemporary approach to using them. Using gunpowder to create different lines and planes of movement. Perfectly choreographed, Cyprus has a wild feel about it that exudes fast-paced motion that is chaotic and random a perfect reflection of abstract expressionism, but instead of paint the artist uses gunpowder.
The round room naturally leads the viewer into the next room that is significantly larger and reflects the previous theme of the room before with not ancestral and religious artefacts but artefacts used in everyday life from roof tiles to ceremonious bells. This time it is a semi circular room with the roof tiles to the left and the circular wall on the right that naturally prompts you to follow the circular wall to then face the right-angled wall featuring the heavily detailed roof tiles with various motifs from the deer to the phoenix. Discovered in the tomb complex of the emperor near the terracotta warriors, archeologists found bronze pieces with different motifs and roof tiles depicting various animals that perhaps represented various Gods from the heavens from the sacred phoenix to the Sun, Goose and Deer. With it, some of the molds to create the tiles were found.
Continuing around the wall displaying the roof tiles and bronze motif tiles, you see a replica of a terracotta warriors armour up close, displaying the intricate plates of armour that would grace each of the infantry. As demonstrated in Figure A. , you can see intricate stitching that held together different overlays of armour plates. Surely nothing could get through that! So far, there have only been two rooms and the contrast between the old and new as well as the symbolic and ritualistic versus realistic and representative is becoming an apparent theme. Because as you turn around, you're confronted with a large rectangular hall with rows of glassed terracotta warriors. It is like you are going through the dig with the archaeologists starting with a small intimate room and then finding larger treasures finally confronted with a large scale replica of an ancient army intact.
Individual glass casings included a reflective mirror directly covering the wall behind the terracotta warrior, enabling you to see the figure in the round as well as creating an eternal image effect that would have reflected real life experience when thousands of these terracotta warriors were discovered. Each warrior was labelled with its designated position from infantrymen to elite archers. There were 8 figures and 8 large boxes in two rows with 3 large hallways for ease of flow. Concluding the hall of Terracotta Warriors are two large scale exhibits of horses and carriages. I can only imagine what kind of discovery this was for China. A wonderful display of richness, culture, history and heritage. I do know from previous study, that preserving the colour (as each item was elegantly painted) has been a difficult task but you can see remnants of paint on the horses and bronze human sized chariot replicas. You can see the detail of the harnesses, the intricate patterns on the carriages and the texture of the very fabric in the bronze sculptures. This must have been just a wealth of knowledge for archaeologists and I would have to say one of the biggest finds in archaeological history.
From these replicas you follow a volly of birds down a dark narrow hallway that leads you into a large expansive oval room. On one end you have a pillar that blocked the interior of the space with seating on its edge. As you passed the pillar, the space just opened up into a mass expanse filled with birds charred at various stages. Just the mass of hanging birds in various moments of flight again calls back to that idea of movement and flow. But what is special about this installation is if you step back you can see it creates a traditional landscape with the use of well positioned birds. Seemingly random flight of birds is a controlled mass off moving figures to create a 3-dimensional landscape an absolute experience. Again seamlessly connecting the past and the present through contemporary use of objects. Each bird is again charred with gunpowder to create a painterly image. Each bird was handcrafted and painstakingly hung by the artist.
A small doorway on the west end of the installation leads you into the Transience room that houses two of Cai Guo-Qiang's works. The far wall houses a 360-degree gunpoder drawing rendered on silk. It captures the peony flower across the four stages of its life cycle: emergence of the bud, blooming, wilting and decay. The showpiece is the installation of a peony garden in the middle that was crafted in Dehua Fujian province, known for its centuries-old tradition of handcrafted white porcelain. Each petal and leaf is unique that was individually crafted and exposed to an ignition of coloured gunpowder. The form echoes the undulations of Mount Li, the mountain adjacent to the site of Qin Shihuang's tomb, the tomb that houses the terracotta warriors. The artist has commented on this installation and subject by stating, "If the peony is considered the colour of the nation with a heavenly fragrance, supreme beauty can be reckoned as a tomb for such beauty. The porcelain went through extreme transformation, from the immaculately white to the sombrely black, the craft that made the white porcelain sculpture, through destruction and devastation, sublimates into art." - Cai Guo-Qiang.
The birds now become an understanding element of the exhibition. You again follow a flight of birds to the tomb entrance that displays part of the Tomb Gate and protective sculptural elements. The tomb gate depicts Nuwa, the ancient protector of humanity most commonly known as mother. She is credited with protecting the earth from a deluge by melting down colourful stones to repair a hole in the heavens, resulting in multicoloured sunsets. The gate is flanked by two rooms. The room on the right displays Pulse, a landscape of gundpowder that represents vast mountains and horizons of China's Central Plains. The events and developments that took place in this region include the reign and philosophies of the Yellow Emperor (Yin & Yang).
From the centure of this drawing is a burst of ignitions representing the energy representing the energy veins of the earth. In Feng Shui, it is the belief that energy forces, geographical contours like ridges, valleys and rivers denote the Earth's veins and the flow of qi or life force. This theory has influenced auspicious sites by those seeking to harness energy from the earth. Many significant locations include Qin Shihuang's tomb, the terracotta army and Han Dynasty emperor's tombs were strategically positioned along those 'meridians'. All meanings, objects and installations were intertwined, all dating back to the importance of this tombs discovery and its relation to history and tradition.
This exhibit did not just include the Qin dynastic tombs but the room to the left of the tomb gate demonstrated how the Han dynasty adopted the tomb practices of the Qin but at a smaller scale using adjoining model armies and attendants and provisions for the afterlife.
The exhibit concludes with a film demonstrating the making of Cai Gu-Qiang: The transient Landscape. An artful behind the scenes look at the creation of his coloured gunpowdered works. He stated "I've used gunpwder in my art for the last thirty years. What I like most about it is its spontaneity and unpredictability. Every situation is different. There's a sense of destiny/ What will happen when you ignite it? It is an unknown which you will accomplish with the help of an invisible force. I'd often say a silent prayer. That's what draws me to gunpoder." - Cai Guo-Qiang. Effectively connecting his works to that of Abstract Expressionism and the idea of randomness.
A great exhibit that has seamlessly connected the past and the present in significant spiritual and practical ways through the visual. The blend of the historical artefacts and contemporary renditions of the traditional was curated perfectly and I couldn't give this exhibition higher praise. Exposing contemporary artists from the East is an interesting trend that dates back to Ting's One Cent Life during the Pop Art Era. It's good to see its exposure through the lens of the contemporary while still holding true to his traditional roots fully explaining its importance to the visitor. GO VISIT BEFORE IT ENDS! It is well worth the visit for sure. :)