Thought-provoking, sophisticated and sublimely detailed, the 2019 Winter Masterpiece Exhibition, Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality | Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape, which celebrated the role of arts and culture in our lives at its media preview on 23 May 2019 within the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is sure to be a huge success.
Respectfully presented in an architectural space of great presence, whose links to the past are both sacred and secular, attendees one and all following on from official proceedings were invited to view the great works being showcased 24th May to 13th October, 2019.
The stunning display makes a splendid case for arts and culture as being integral to each other.
Minister of Creative Industries in the Victorian Government Martin Foley reminded those present of the ongoing importance of the great cultural bond that exists in Victoria with the People’s Republic of China, which has been spurred on and enhanced by such wonderful exchanges.
Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who believes a ‘dialogue with tradition and history can ‘invigorate contemporary art’, following this exhibition will long be admired for his insightful, breath-taking conception of not only his own works, but also how to present his culture’s inheritance with great style. He was ably assisted by NGV curator of Asian art Wayne Crothers and his staff, who helped bring the artist’s vision to glorious fruition.
Cai Guo-Qiang was happily on hand to talk animatedly about his own wondrous works on show; telling us about how (through an interpreter), they were conceived, as well as achieved, by his use of various techniques, which include him using gunpowder to explode them into being.
He ensured with such a fine and rich example before us, his genius has now been well established in Australia and he was as excited as we all were to encounter, not only important treasures from Chinese antiquity together with great relics from the early dynasties of his culture’s history, but also pleased he had been involved in showcasing them spectacularly alongside his own works in a contemporary setting.
They certainly represent his culture’s ‘enduring philosophical and intellectual traditions’ and they left all present simply wanting more.
Great art has an ability to affect not only our perceptions, but also our emotions, communicating ideas, expressing conceptions about self, the community, our intellectual, spiritual and cultural beliefs, as well as behaviours and practices.
Throughout human history the visages of art have been both many and varied, concerning itself with the natural and supernatural, the real and unreal, the seen and unseen, the past, the present and the future as well as the transient and the eternal. All are on show here.
When you enter the first room in its centre are individual display areas full of wondrous early objects made in China BC, well before the time of the First Emperor.
Ancestral treasures, they demand attention in their own right, for they are evocative of their own time. Some of the ceramics on display revealed signs of the first cultural exchanges between the east and west in colour, pattern and form.
Then as you turn, partially circling the wall of the first room, you will also find Cai Guo-Qiang’s Flow (Cypress), a special work created here in Melbourne. Commissioned for the exhibition by the NGV, the subject is Cypress trees, whose colouring in contrast with the natural terrain has dominated the mountainous regions of both Europe and China for centuries.
The wondrous textures of the bark, the muted swirling of the leaves bending in an imaginary breeze, only surviving because of their ‘enduring vigor’, explained the artist, who was seemingly looking to transmit to viewers both their ‘vitality and movement’.
He achieved this brilliantly by fusing all together, producing a work whose spirit and soul has been etched firmly into its essence.
Between the Peking man discovered by anthropologists in 1927 in a cave south west of the modern city of Peking and a Peking man of today, there is a span of some 400,000 years. Chinese dynastic histories started before the birth of Christ and continued unbroken until 1911.
The Qin (Ch’in) 249 – 207 BC dynasty’s First Emperor Shih-huang-ti was considered a demi-god, his tomb guarded by thousands of bigger than life size terracotta warriors.
There has been an ongoing conversation abroad for a long time about the warriors as either works of art or cultural relics.
All are uniquely individual and those on display have not been in Australia before.
Each giant figure has been treated with great respect, standing imposingly in its own glass case in a room of quiet beige walls, providing a far more dispassionate forum for the community at large to assess them by, as has ever been seen before.
Encountering the early signs of Cai Guo-Qiang’s extraordinary ‘flight’ installation of some 10,000 ceramic birds, which are both innovative and mesmerizing as they at first, sparingly, lead the visitor on through each room of the display, is a wondrous experience.
Moving silently forward, they are the tail end of a very large flock of nearly ten thousand birds, which are inhabiting their own very large space, which has been dedicated to showcasing how and when they arrive at the mountainous area.
Over the First Emperor’s tomb, they are found hovering high overhead, silently and with great melancholy, before swooping down again to continue along their way.
The piece de resistance for me was in the next room, Transience 1: Peony, showing off the flower of abundance, which grows wild in temperate and cold regions. Native to Asia, Europe and Western North America the peony rose as it sometimes referred to, has been revered and cultivated throughout Chinese history for centuries for its beauty and it seems, its flavour.
Educator K’ung Fu Tzu, recognised more readily in the west by the Latinized version of his name Confucius (551-479 BC), both embraced and encouraged social harmony. He is accredited with starting the first school in China and for saying about the peony … “I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much”…
Cai Guo-Qiang used silk, ceramic and paper elements to create this masterwork, which he infused together by repeated explosions. The work is all about how ‘the beauty of the withering and decaying flowers’ are not surpassed by those blooming bounteously.
Having just witnessed the glorious opening, the decay while changing colour and eventually the dramatic falling of its petals for a huge bunch of superb coral coloured peonies in my living room the week before, I was as one with what he was endeavouring to achieve, as he sought to ‘convey the ephemerality’ of their cycle of life. His process must be wondrous to behold.
Culture is created by each and everyone of us and defines who we are as a nation. It embodies the values, the traditions and the beliefs we all share as a nation, and it is continually enriched by our interaction with people from around the world.
There is no doubt in my mind, by interacting with Cai Guo-Qiang’s extraordinary installations, we can assist our own culture to keep active and alive, transforming every day lives.
Viewing a great exhibition so superbly presented as this is, is indeed inspiring, not only because of the works involved, but also in the journey it represents to us all achieving greater cultural awareness and understanding of the roles we have as individuals and as nations to play in the future of the world, based on our combined wisdom.
In our modern world if we are to prosper, it will happen best through an ‘economy driven by inventiveness’ and superb cultural exchanges such as this exhibition at the NGV International, for this year’s Winter Masterpieces.
Special Events are programmed and there are two catalogues, providing an insight into the art and cultural works on display. Be early; I am sure you will want to see it more than once.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019
24 May – 13 October, 2019
St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia