Art

At the National Gallery of Victoria, the ancient terracotta warriors of Xi’an are exhibited with the work of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang, provoking a conversation about history, legacy and immortality. By Elizabeth Flux.

Terracotta Warriors and Cai Guo-Qiang

Installation view of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality at NGV International.
Credit: Sean Fennessy

In one of the rooms you can smell the gunpowder. It’s unclear whether it is coming from the giant colourful artwork stretched around the room or from the delicate, black-stained sculpture in the centre. Perhaps both.

The two works were created by contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang – Transience II (Peony), a giant painting on silk that encircles Transience I (Peony), a delicate porcelain sculpture of peonies.

The use of gunpowder is a key part of both, its lingering scent a strong reminder that these works are new – very new.

Created earlier in 2019, specifically for this Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Transience I and II provide a timely contrast to the ancient statues with which they share the space – the 2000-year-old terracotta warriors.

The interesting thing about the Chinese word for gunpowder is that it doesn’t contain the word “gun”. Historically, as with many materials eventually warped for violence, its original uses were much more positive, including celebration and ancestor worship. The Chinese term, 火药 huǒ yào, literally means “fire medicine”.

Cai has been working with gunpowder since the 1980s, his art tapping into this broader cultural association and history. Working across various media including video, porcelain, silk and his signature gunpowder, he explores his interest in “Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues”, and “his artworks respond to culture and history”. It is this deep understanding of history combined with his unique aesthetic expression that made Cai the perfect artist to respond to such significant cultural artefacts as the terracotta warriors.

To view this exhibition purely through a Western lens would do its subtlety and true intention a disservice. Warriors and gunpowder may seem an apt combination to explore violence and ugliness, but that is far from the case here. “It’s coming from a very different place,” explains Wayne Crothers, the NGV’s senior curator of Asian art. “I think it’s referencing [gunpowder’s] traditional use in Chinese society.”

Ticketed as one event, Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape and Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality are two separate exhibitions that guide visitors through about 1200 years of China’s history: the 800 years leading up to the unification of China and the following 400 years. They weave together, respond to each other and separate at different points. The terracotta warriors feel like a standalone part of the exhibition, but the surrounding original artworks put them in a modern context, and invite deeper reflection.

One of the key connectors between the exhibitions is China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whose tomb the warriors are guarding. Cai’s work references Mount Li, the mountain that rises up behind the emperor’s tomb: the 10,000 porcelain birds in Murmuration (Landscape) – which fill the room that comes after the warriors – form the outline of the mountain and, in Cai’s words, “embody the lingering spirits of the underground army”. It is perhaps his most striking artwork in the exhibition.

The other connection is immortality and legacy. The emperor’s tomb and his army of warriors speak to his preoccupation with the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang famously was obsessed with immortality – the story goes that he died of self-inflicted mercury poisoning in a misguided attempt to prolong his life. It is ironic then that, in the Western world at least, his warriors might outstrip him in both fame and legacy. Cai responds to this theme of immortality with Flow (Cypress), a large-scale gunpowder painting that focuses on the traditionally long-lived evergreen trees.

The story of the warriors’ discovery has become its own legend. They were first uncovered by farmers in 1974, at the tail end of China’s Cultural Revolution, and ongoing excavations have led to estimates of some 8000 terracotta statues, including 500 horses, in the mausoleum complex surrounding the emperor’s as yet unopened tomb. Qin Shi Huang, regarded as the man who united China, has remained a respected figure, even during the Cultural Revolution – which meant although the warriors were discovered during this era, Crothers explains, they wouldn’t have been seen as a challenging part of Chinese history or culture, and thus remained safe from deliberate destruction.

This exhibition isn’t the first time the warriors have visited the NGV. In 1982, celebrating the 10th anniversary of China and Australia formally establishing diplomatic relations, the warriors were in the country on a five-city tour, with Melbourne as the first stop. It was the first major show outside China to feature the warriors, and the exhibition had only 19 items; the current exhibition has more than 170, providing greater context for the warriors as art, rather than mere artefact.

The line between art and artefact is a narrow one. Why are the warriors being displayed at a gallery and not a museum? Asked whether the warriors were originally created as art, Crothers is matter-of-fact and his answer immediate: “Well, no, they were functional. They were intended to protect the tomb and the emperor’s afterlife.” But in these two exhibitions, art, history and culture all inhabit the same space. Cai’s work and artistic responses fill out any gaps that exist between these three areas – creating a bigger picture looking at life, death and what may or may not come afterwards.

In Xi’an, where the warriors were discovered, visitors can look down upon rows and rows of the statues. At this exhibition, however, things are flipped – both in scale and perspective. The Chinese government will allow only 10 statues out of the country at any given time, so the ones on display at NGV have been judiciously chosen. “I was very focused on getting a broad selection of the different types of warriors, representing the different ranks within the military and the different costumes, the different postures of them,” says Crothers.

There are just eight warriors here, and two horses, raised on pedestals, set up in two rows in a bright, mirror-filled room. You reach them about halfway through the exhibition, after passing through rooms filled with carefully selected ancient objects crafted out of gold, jade and bronze – which, despite being overshadowed by the major works, are each beautiful and remarkable in their own way.

Another part of the legend surrounding the warriors is that each is unique, that they were perhaps modelled after real people. Though it is almost impossible now to verify this, there is supporting evidence. Ears are as unique as fingerprints – and the warriors all have very different ones.

The NGV’s set-up allows each warrior to be seen as an individual. There’s the standing archer: his bow is long gone, and his hands are empty, but his eyes still follow the trajectory of an arrow as though it has just been shot. Then there’s the civil official, showing that “warriors” is a misnomer. Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum complex wasn’t just a tomb; it was a city for the afterlife, with a pleasure garden and administration quarters – which is where the civil official statue was found.

There is an interesting conversation being had throughout the exhibition about legacy, immortality and the fleeting nature of life. The warriors exist because one man wanted to live forever – and if he couldn’t do that, he wanted to ensure that his afterlife was properly planned for. And his legacy, in some ways, is a means of living forever – his name is still spoken, his accomplishments remembered.

The mirrors between the warriors reflect back on one another, giving each warrior an inaccessible passageway to eternity, or, as the title of the exhibition suggests, to immortality. Cai’s work and his focus on nature – from Flow (Cypress) to Transience I and II – show the vulnerability and beauty of landscapes. Peonies only bloom for a week, but in the painting and the sculptures, they are captured in one moment, forever.

The conversation doesn’t end there though. Upstairs, the NGV is showing A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection. Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery focuses on contemporary Chinese art from 2000 onwards, and provides a snapshot of modern Chinese life, concerns and society through its collection of more than 2500 artworks. The exhibition at the NGV is free, and showcases the work of 26 Chinese artists. Come June 28, the NGV will also have an exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography. Crothers explains, “We were very much focused on having a winter of Chinese events – historical and contemporary.”

In the main exhibition, it seems fitting that you can smell gunpowder in only one of the rooms – the one featuring artworks titled Transience. And it’s entirely possible that the smell has already faded. In an exhibition about history and legacy, it’s a reminder that everything left behind also points to something lost forever. Flowers without their scent. Warriors without their weapons.

 

Arts Diary

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Venues throughout Adelaide, until June 22

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Venues throughout Sydney, until June 16

THEATRE Unrule

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MUSICAL Sweeney Todd

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Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, June 20-23

CLASSICAL 4MBS Festival of Classics 2019

Venues throughout Brisbane, until June 23

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Last chance

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Guards of honour". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.