Acclaimed Chinese artist and “explosion event” maestro Cai Guo-Qiang, whose Falling Back to Earth exhibition of three striking installations runs at GOMA until May 2014, exemplifies the old adage “if at first you don’t succeed…”.
A long-time collaborator with the Queensland Art Gallery and GOMA through various Asia-Pacific Triennials, the genius behind the spectacular fireworks for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics has twice tasted artistic disaster in Brisbane.
On one sad occasion, at APT2 in 1996, a planned pyrotechnic parade literally when up in smoke when an accident at the local fireworks factory destroyed the display. Then, at APT3 in 1999, a proposed procession down the Brisbane River of 99 small boats ablaze with burning alcohol was – again literally – sunk when the flotilla started taking on water from the rear vessels.
Not to be deterred Cai has returned to Brisbane, this time in triumph, with a breathtaking work with local inspiration. Heritage features 99 replica animals from all corners of the globe, and of varying ferocities, drinking peacefully at a single waterhole. Cai says the brilliant blue waterhole was inspired by a pristine lake at North Stradbroke that he visited many years ago. The work asks such questions as: “How can the predators and prey at this gathering relate to each other?”
Head On is made up of – again – 99 replica animals, a loop of wolves hurling themselves through the air, hitting a glass wall, falling, and repeating the process. The message here is that while leaping into the unknown can appear heroic, to blindly follow ideology can have damaging consequences if we don’t learn from our mistakes. The work, inspired by the Berlin Wall and Berlin’s troubled history, originally appeared at the Deutsche Guggenheim.
The repeated use of 99 is symbolic. Nine represents “long lasting” in Chinese numerology while Cai sees 99 as representing something that is not complete “providing a sense of insufficiency and expectation”.
The final installation is Eucalyptus, a huge tree trunk taken from a development site, and representing the tough and resilient character of Australia. Cai asks visitors to imagine the tree’s past and present, and to make proposals for its future. It’s a fitting representation of the artist’s obvious concern for the environment and his message of taking care of it.
Cai sees pristine areas of Queensland as “the last paradise on earth”. So what would he make of the recent decision of allow four significant mining-related projects which threaten the Great Barrier Reef to go ahead, including for three million cubic metres of dredge spoil to be dumped offshore in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park?