Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth

Cai Guo-Qiang – the artist behind the exploding cars of the 2010 Sydney Biennale – is rightly known for his work of epic proportions that make powerful statements through unusually embodied, large-scale, and arresting forms. Influenced by time spent in the stunning landscape of Queensland, ‘Falling Back to Earth’ is no exception.

Upon entering the gallery we find an enormous fallen eucalyptus tree that immediately speaks of the monumental scale, deep time, and contradictory forces of nature at play in the Australian landscape: life and death, fire and water, and connections to nature that are increasingly removed from our lives. In Eucalyptus, 2013, the tree itself has fallen back to Earth, and this scenario immediately provides a compelling space in which to mediate on the historical, political and social allegories that Guo-Qiang raises in relation to humans, animals and land.

While Guo-Qiang’s previous works use ephemeral elements such as explosives and gunpowder, at GOMA he takes a more pensive approach to time. While at first these works appear as singular representations captured as still moments in time, these scenes suggest much more complex ramifications of future and past. The eucalyptus is an ancient element of nature that has been alive for thousands of years, a connection to the unified existence of Gondwana land. Like counting the rings of a tree trunk’s core to estimate its age, the idea is a wondrous expression of the ancient evolution of the earth.

In Head On, 2006, 99 life-sized wolves are staged running in a cascade across the gallery space, jumping into a glass wall before crumbling to the ground. It is a dramatic scene that speaks of pack mentality and an endless cycle of destruction, recovery and repetition. A tension occurs when such a lively, kinetic and suspenseful potential motion is presented in complete stillness. Head On is influenced by the history of Berlin and confronts the persistent conflict between East and West Germany. Guo-Qiang uses the notion of pack-mentality to evoke a wildness, destruction and addictive sense of collective identity that takes power over people in times of conflict and uncertainty, where we lose sight of reason and consequence and instead put faith in following and believing in others.

The third work, Heritage, 2013, contrasts with the chaotic motion of Head On through its tranquil harmony, where different animal species from all over the world are seen side-by-side surrounding a large pond. Water rhythmically drips into the pond and disrupts the water’s surface, suggesting suspense of what may happen next if this scene were to come to life, and more broadly, the ripple effect of action and consequence where everything in life is connected. This oasis, however, is of course an illusion, and the dripping of water like a ticking clock emphasises that this suspension of reality won’t last. The beauty of this mirage plays on the idea of Australia as a ‘paradise’ – an image that is often projected internationally, while the reality is vastly different: Australia’s landscape is in fact scarred with environmental destruction and racial conflict.

Not only do the works in ‘Falling Back to Earth’ appeal purely on aesthetic value, but they also provide fascinating negotiations of time and space, and represent concepts of power, history, life cycles and beliefs. Guo-Qiang allows viewers a moment to meditate on scenes that are frozen in time, that spiral into multiple readings of the complexities of nature and humanity. While Eucalyptus speaks of deep time and ancient histories, Head On captures a sense of destructive cycles of behaviour, and Heritage then stages an idyllic paradise we can now only dream of. Together, they explore the environmental, and in turn political tensions that Australia currently faces, but situates these concerns within the universal circle of life. It reminds us of fundamental forces of nature that are much greater than ourselves – but are so often overlooked.

Gallery of Modern Art
Until 11 May, 2014

Head On, 2006, installation view, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2009, 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall, wolves: gauze, resin, and painted hide
Photography: Erika Barahona-Ede

Heritage (artist’s impression), 2013, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 99 life-sized replicas of various animals, water, sand
Courtesy the artist