Highlight: Danh Vo ‘2.2.1861’

 
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Danh Vo, Vietnam/Denmark b.1975 / 2.2.1861 2009-ongoing / Ink on paper / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

With the generous assistance of Michael Sidney Myer, the Gallery recently acquired this deceptively simple yet emotionally complex work by Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, for the Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art.

Over the past five years, Danh Vo has emerged as one of the most acclaimed young artists working internationally. Since 2008 he has participated in numerous biennales and major exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the United States, and in 2012 was awarded the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize. His work has struck a chord at a time when the operations and lineages of modernity, globalisation and cultural exchange have become key preoccupations in contemporary art. Using found, purchased and reproduced objects, Vo entwines personal history with references to wider social movements and political events, making evident the complex web of relations between private lives and the public sphere.

A particular focus of Vo’s work is the symbolism and distribution of power around the world, from French colonial incursions into Indochina to the global promotion of democracy by the United States. Icons such as the United States flag and the Statue of Liberty are remade and reworked, while items that were witnesses to history — such as the chandeliers from the Paris hotel ballroom where the treaty ending the Vietnam War was signed, and chairs from the Kennedy White House, which were owned by Robert Macnamara, the Secretary of Defense who led the US into that war — are displayed like holy relics. Indirectly, these objects enormously affected Vo’s own life: his family were Vietnamese refugees who fled South Vietnam on a boat in 1979, were picked up by a Danish ship, and then resettled in Denmark, where the artist grew up.

2.2.1861 (2009–ongoing) is a letter handwritten by Vo’s father, Phung Vo. It is a copy of a letter written in 1861 by the French Catholic missionary Jean-Théopane Vénard (1829–61) to his own father just before his execution. Vénard was based at a mission in West Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and was captured and imprisoned due to an edict from the Nguyen emperor banning proselytising (Vénard was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II). The French were then in the process of strengthening their presence in Vietnam, partly in response to the treatment of French missionaries, and undertook a series of invasions between 1858 and 1861 before signing the Treaty of Saigon in 1862, granting them control of the city and surrounding provinces. French and Catholic influences remain profound in Vietnam to this day.

Phung Vo cannot read French, but his elegant handwriting forms a beautiful transcription of this emotional letter from son to father. Through this process, the work links to the artist’s own relationship with his father, and is restaged again and again as Phung Vo copies letters for whoever acquires one. It remains an open edition until Phung Vo’s death, at which time the letters will be editioned. 2.2.1861 is one of several document-based works by Vo, which include Vo Rosasco Rasmussen (2002–), an archive of legal documents accumulated from a sequence of marriages and divorces the artist undertook to acquire a collection of surnames. Vo’s experience as an immigrant — where identity is constructed through a bureaucratic relation to the state — plays out through this work, although the artist turns the tables and produces his own identity through official paperwork. Vo’s deployment of an historical personal document in 2.2.1861 creates a concise yet richly layered and compelling work, one that reflects the complex and often violent history of South-East Asia, and how it affects and has been affected by individuals.

‘How did the tree get into GOMA?’

 

While developing his exhibition ‘Falling Back to Earth’ at the Gallery of Modern Art, Cai Guo-Qiang undertook a series of research visits to locations around Queensland. On one of these trips, Cai, his family, and Cai Studio manager Kelly Ma took a tour of Lamington National Park, near the Queensland/New South Wales border. This extraordinary reserve contains remnants of Gondwanan rainforest, such as the majestic Antarctic beech, dating back to when Australia was connected to Antarctica, India, Africa and South America around 200 million years ago. The sense of vast scale and deep time that these trees evoke was a major inspiration for Eucalyptus.

Cai always carries out local research when developing his projects, tapping into elements of history, culture and society at the site where the work is made. This provides connections to its location and audience, while also leading back to his own experience and Chinese heritage. Cai’s focus in Queensland was to gain an understanding of the natural world in particular. The unique, ancient and relatively pristine environment of South East and Far North Queensland made a huge impression on him, encouraging him to reflect on its relationship to the rest of the world, along with humanity’s broader connection with nature, which is undergoing enormous challenges  through environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation.

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Eucalyptus 2013 was conceived by Cai as a quintessential element of the Australian landscape, transposed into the Gallery of Modern Art like a vast readymade. The work is both literal and metaphysical, encouraging meditations on its existence while being overwhelmingly direct and present. Neither lying on its side nor upright, the 31-metre spotted gum tree is suspended on an angle so that it soars up from its roots, between weight and weightlessness, ground and air. Visitors encounter the base of the root ball on entering the space, as if looking up at the tree from below the ground, and from the other end can look down the trunk of the tree from its branches, as if floating in the sky above the canopy. We have the opportunity to get to know this tree intimately as an individual rather than part of a mass of trees, and contemplate it as an aesthetic experience, not unlike the scholars who painted and wrote about trees, mountains and streams to create the great works of Chinese art and literature.

The Gallery’s challenge was to find a tree that was earmarked to be removed in the near future. This took some time, but a suitable tree was located in Springfield, in a zone allotted for clearing as part of the Springfield Lakes community development project.

The removal of the tree and planning of the installation involved arborists, engineers, and Gallery staff, including exhibition designers, conservators, and workshop and installation teams. The tree was cut into pieces and moved to a clearing where it was treated for insects and prepared for movement into the Gallery. It was transported to South Bank on the backs of several trucks late one evening, where Gallery workshop and installation staff brought them through the entrance – from which the glass doors had been removed – into the space for installation. The pieces were reconnected seamlessly, with the angle of the tree supported by steel posts and bases and suspension wires, designed to be as visually minimal as possible. The result is magical, like a ship in a bottle: a common question from our visitors is ‘how did this get in here?’

This long and complex process is considered by Cai as an essential part of Eucalyptus, with the gallery installation one point along the tree’s journey. He sees it as essentially unfinished, with audiences contributing to it by participating in an activity designed by the artist with the Gallery’s Children’s Art Centre. Visitors are invited to respond to Cai’s proposition, ‘If this tree could be anything at all, what might that be? Compose a poem, draw a picture, or write a message to Cai about your ideas for the tree’. The wealth of ideas and images that has been generated by this proposition is fascinating and inspiring, expanding the work into numerous potential directions, like the winding branches that splay out from its enormous trunk. Eucalyptus is, by Cai’s own admission, the most open-ended work in ‘Falling Back to Earth’. It defies easy description – to me the growing archive of vastly diverse impressions, proposals, hopes and reactions is the most accurate way to explain it, rather than any curatorial statement or essay. In other words, you need to see it for yourself.

A richly illustrated catalogue accompanies ‘Cai Quo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ and includes spectacular photography of the installations.

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All images: QAGOMA photography

Highlight: Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Heritage’

 
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Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Heritage (installation view) 2013 / 99 life-sized replicas of animals. Animals: polystyrene, gauze, resin and hide. Installed with artificial watering hole: water, sand, drip mechanism / Purchased 2013 with funds from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Purchased for the Collection with generous support from the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation, this major installation work, a ‘last paradise’ inspired by Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island, continues to inspire visitors to ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’. Read about some of the symbolism behind the work.

On first encountering Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2013 installation Heritage, many visitors gasp in awe and surprise, a visceral response that is at once sensory and emotional. While many contemporary works of art evoke a sense of wonder, be it through scale, technical virtuosity, or other evidence of extraordinarily intensive labour, such a genuine feeling is difficult to orchestrate. Cai’s work displays all three of these attributes, and contains an additional element: a powerful aura of stillness and resolve that the artist has described as a ‘religious solemnity’, which may explain this deep response in people. The centrepiece of Cai’s exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, ‘Falling Back to Earth’, Heritage offers an indelible, if impossible, image of the natural world in a moment of perfect harmony, while also gently evoking a mood of crisis.

Heritage comprises 99 replicas of animals (carved from polystyrene and covered in goat hide) that bow to drink from a vast blue pool surrounded by white sand. There are uncanny versions of beasts from across the world, from tigers, giraffes and zebras to polar bears and chimpanzees, to wombats and kangaroos. The work was initially inspired by an image that came to the artist after travelling to North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), off the coast of Brisbane, in 2011. The pristine environment of the work embodies Cai’s perception of Queensland as a kind of ‘last paradise’, where the woes plaguing the rest of the human and natural worlds are yet to take hold. The allegory that Heritage creates of a harmonious multicultural society within a unique and beautiful landscape is understood as an ideal, its tensions and fractures lying just below the surface. The only movement is a single drip of water that falls from the ceiling into the pool, its slight disturbance reminding us that this conviviality cannot last. Other questions begin to arise: what has brought these unlikely animals together? Is this the only place they can find sustenance and peace? What would happen if they lifted their heads?

While best known for dramatic explosion events, in which gunpowder and fireworks are used to create ritualistic spectacles in both remote and urban sites, Cai has also created a number of elaborate installations throughout his career. They reflect his early training in theatre design and performance: Cai travelled China with a propaganda troupe during the Cultural Revolution era of the early 1970s and studied at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in the 1980s. These experiences have clearly informed his approach to installation, ‘instilling them with particular temporal and spatial dynamism and performance sensibility’.1 An ongoing motif is the use of animals, configured in narrative tableaus that convey the artist’s concerns for humanity’s estrangement from nature, and its inexhaustible tendency to inflict violence on others.

Heritage is one of the most ambitious commissions that the Gallery has undertaken, from one of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, and with the generous assistance of Win Schubert through the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation, it is now part of the Collection. Heritage augments the major gunpowder drawing Cai created for ‘The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ in 1996, and adds significantly to the group of important installations in the Collection by leading Chinese artists including Huang Yong Ping, Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing. Like these artists, Cai Guo-Qiang draws on Chinese philosophy, aesthetics and craftsmanship in the conception and production of his works, yet he has always also looked outward — beyond borders, cultural differences, even beyond Earth, as in his ‘Projects for Extraterrestrials’ series. His work strives to synthesise and make visible to us the unseen forces of history, memory and culture that shape our lives, wherever we may live, and his ability to connect is no better expressed than in that first gasp of wonder.

Endnote
1  Mónica Ramírez-Montigut, ‘Installations’, in Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe [exhibition catalogue], Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008, p.190.

A richly illustrated catalogue accompanies ‘Cai Quo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’. The exhibition’s interrelated themes of nature, spirituality and globalisation are a focus. The publication traces Cai’s unique history with QAGOMA, as one of the first public institutions to collect the artist’s work and includes spectacular photography of the new installations.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to EarthExhibition publication

Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth

 
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Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 | Heritage (artist’s impression) 2013 | 99 life-sized replicas of various animals, water, sand | Commissioned for the exhibition ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ | Courtesy and ©: The artist

Cai Guo-Qiang made significant contributions to the Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennials in 1996 and 1999, with his memorable gunpowder drawing and bamboo bridge across the Watermall. He was also involved in the first Kids’ APT in 1999, with his bridge-making activity. It is this close association between Cai and the Gallery over the past eighteen years that has enabled ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ to be realised in Brisbane, his first solo exhibition in Australia.

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]Cai Guo-Qiang | Nine Dragon Wall (Drawing for Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 28) 1996 | Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper | Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) | Purchased 1996 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist
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Cai Guo Qiang | Blue dragon & bridge crossing | Project commissioned for the 3rd Asia-Pacific Triennial 1999 | ©: The artist

Cai makes art works that bring people together in a single, special moment. His installations, gunpowder drawings and explosion events spectacularly transform both materials and our experience of space, opening up what the artist has called ‘a dialogue with the universe’. Each of Cai’s works reaches into a kind of collective consciousness, drawing on mythology, history, science and metaphysics to offer a view of the world that is far broader and more interconnected than the one we usually see.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) marks a new focus for the artist. As the title suggests, he has turned his attention away from the universe to look more closely at the Earth, our common home. After travelling throughout Queensland, Cai was inspired to create two major new installations that reflect on our relationship to nature, as well as to how we relate to each other in a time of globalisation. Australia’s unique environments and multicultural society is of great interest to Cai, although he is also aware of the fragility of both, and the need to nurture and care for them so that they may grow and flourish into the future.

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Cai Guo-Qiang | Head On 2006 | 99 life-sized replicas of wolves and glass wall | Wolves: gauze, resin, and painted hide | Deutsche Bank Collection, commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG | © FMGBGuggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2009 | Photo: Erika Barahona-Ede

A centrepiece of the exhibition is a dramatic new commission, Heritage 2013, which features 99 life-sized artificial animals from around the world, gathered together at a watering hole. Also included will be Cai’s iconic 2006 work Head On, which features 99 life-sized artificial wolves configured as a large group, leaping into the air before crashing into a glass wall. Referencing the scale of the Berlin Wall, this transparent barrier suggests the divisions that exist between people, as well as the danger of looking only at what is obvious. Wolves are heroic when they act together, but they are blind when following the pack rather than thinking for themselves. As the wolves walk back from the wall and begin the cycle again, Cai evokes the tendency of humanity to historically repeat its mistakes.

It is significant that Cai has chosen Australia as the place to shift the focus in his practice; to ‘return to earth from the heavens’ and consider the here and now, and where we might be heading.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ spans the ground floor galleries of GOMA from 23 November 2013 until 11 May 2014.

Highlight: Huang Yong Ping ‘Ressort’

 
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Huang Yong Ping, China/France b.1954 | Ressort (installation view) 2012 | Aluminium, stainless steel | Purchased 2012 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Through the generous support of Tim Fairfax, AM, the Gallery has recently commissioned and acquired one of the signature works of APT7, Ressort 2012, a sculpture by the Chinese–French artist Huang Yong Ping.

A gigantic aluminium snake skeleton that spirals 53 metres across the Watermall, Ressort 2012 is a fitting centrepiece for APT7. This is not only because it is a major work by one of the leading figures in Chinese contemporary art, but also because it embodies many of the ideas that drive the APT and the Gallery, with its emphasis on cross-cultural dialogue, its engagement with audiences, and its thoughtful response to site and context.

Huang was born in Xiamen in southern China in 1954. Along with artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Xu Bing, he was part of the first wave of students admitted to the newly reopened art academies following the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). While at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Huang gained access to Western art and philosophy books in Chinese translation, and became interested in French postmodern theory and the work of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Joseph Beuys. Huang found connections between Taoist and Zen Buddhist thought, with its embrace of constant change, and the deconstructive, dematerialising strategies of Dada. In 1986, he co-founded the influential avant-garde group Xiamen Dada, which staged several radical events that included burning paintings at the end of an exhibition, and installing construction materials in a gallery instead of art works.

Since 1989, Huang has lived in Paris. As with many artists of his generation, he left China at the time of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which registered an end to the increasingly open expression that had built since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Living in France enabled Huang to participate actively in the international art world, exhibiting widely and raising awareness of Chinese avant-garde art, particularly in Europe. It also encouraged him to shift his practice to address the interaction of different cultures in an increasingly globalised world. In Huang’s works since 1989, Chinese symbols and mythology are often intertwined with those of the West, overlaid with references to the locality where the work is shown.

This approach is clearly evident in Ressort, which was commissioned for APT7 and the Collection. Here Huang expands the form of the snake, a regular motif in his work, to a gigantic scale. ‘Ressort’ is French for ‘spring’, and can also mean energy or resilience, and the snake skeleton coils from the roof to the floor, as if coming down from the sky, with its skull floating just above the water. The coiled snake or dragon, a central figure in Chinese mythology since ancient times, is traditionally associated with water; the snake also represents knowledge and wisdom. The snake/dragon is also a key figure in other cultures, appearing in the Garden of Eden in the Bible, as the Naga in Southeast Asia, as the foe to Beowulf or Saint George in Anglo–Saxon mythology, and as the Rainbow Serpent in Australian Aboriginal culture. It is alternatively a symbol of fear, creation, desire, deception or good luck.

Ressort suggests movement through its sinuous loops, but the skeleton is static, like a dinosaur fossil in a museum. It is gigantic, larger than any snake could be, but scale is relative, according to Huang: what is huge in one context is tiny in another. The fluidity and ambiguity of the snake powerfully express the tensions that Huang Yong Ping likes to keep in play in his work. Nothing is certain, meaning is created through the interdependence of things rather than via fixed truths, and we are all subject to the forces of chance and change.

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