Eight terracotta warriors stand to attention inside the National Gallery of Victoria, commanding the space with their intense stares.
Above these relics, from China’s Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, 10,000 porcelain birds soar free throughout the cavernous room in juxtaposition to the grounded ceramic army.
Image: Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Murmuration (Landscape) 2019 (detail) Realised in Dehua, Fujian province and Melbourne, commissioned by the NGV. Proposed acquisition supported by Ying Zhang in association with the Asian Australian Foundation, 2019 NGV Foundation Annual Dinner and 2019 NGV Annual Appeal, on display at NGV International © Cai Guo- Qiang. Image credit: Tobias Titz Photography
The works are featured in the NGV’s Winter Masterpiece exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Mortality, which opened in Melbourne last week, in a stunning synthesis of ancient and modern art.
The famed Warriors were discovered in 1974 in China’s Shaanxi province and are regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century.
Image: Installation view of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape at NGV International, 24 May – 13 October 2019. Image credit: Sean Fennessy
This is not the first time the warriors have visited Australia – they were previously exhibited at the NGV in 1982 and at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW in 1983 and 2010 – but it’s the first time they have been displayed alongside a contemporary artist.
The birds, created by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, are presented as a parallel work to the soldiers, representing the spirits of the 10,000 Warriors; 8000 of which remain entombed in the spot where they were found.
“The Terracotta Warriors… are a symbol of death and their lingering spirits,” says Cai through an interpreter.
“I wanted to use the birds to represent the lingering spirits of the thousands of soldiers and also to show a shadow of China’s Imperial past.”
Cai applies a philosophical approach to his art and muses on mortality and death with the several works he exhibits as part of his The Transient Landscape exhibition.
“Birds represent life and time and a sense of fleeing moment and the flowing of time. That’s something that I think everyone can relate to.”
In addition to his avian artwork, Cai has also created a 360-degree gunpowder drawing of colourful peonies surrounding a sculpture of dead flowers.
Image: Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Flow (Cypress) 2019. Realised in Melbourne, commissioned by the NGV on display at NGV International © Cai Guo-Qiang. Image credit: Tobias Titz Photography
It was inspired by a field of decaying peonies he saw during a research trip to the Shaanxi province to see the Warriors.
“I wanted to show the stages of the peonies life from the emergence of bud to blossom to eventual decay.”
His process is remarkable: drawing on silk, lining that with gunpowder and carefully igniting it until the burnt art is left on a canvas.
“There is a sense of violence and death in the process itself, it’s like a burial ritual,” he says.
Cai hopes the parallel presentation will introduce a new understanding of China.
“It not only shows ancient Chinese culture [but] through my participation you can see today’s China as well, you see China today as itself and its relation with the rest of the world.
“My exhibition not only comments on China but it creates many different elements that can be shared by people coming from all different cultures.”
The Melbourne Winter Masterpieces presentation of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape is on display from 24 May 2019 to 13 October 2019 at NGV International.
Top image: Installation view of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality and Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape at NGV International, 24 May – 13 October 2019. Image credit: Sean Fennessy