Commissioning ‘Heritage’: An installation by Cai Guo-Qiang


Over a period of six years from 2008, QAGOMA and New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo- Qiang developed and realised the spectacular and meditative art installation Heritage 2013 — a beautiful, thought-provoking vision of our relationship with the earth and with each other. A highly collaborative undertaking, the artwork comprises 99 life-sized imitation animals from around the world congregating at a waterhole and covering 1104 m2 of floor space. 

Now, after an absence of six years since Heritage was last on display, 45 of the animals have returned to drink from the brilliant blue waterhole during our major summer exhibition ‘Water’ at GOMA until 26 April 2020.

Before going on view, we look back at the origins of the work and delve into the commission and construction of this large-scale and technically complex installation.

Watch the installation time-lapse from 2013

Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube and step behind closed doors to experience the Gallery like never before / Cai Guo-Qiang coordinated the placement of each animal at the edge of the waterhole for Heritage.

In 2008, the Gallery began discussions with Cai Guo-Qiang regarding a major commissioned installation. The concept was a work that would form a centrepiece for a major exhibition, as well as bringing a significant sculptural work by Cai into the Gallery’s collection. QAGOMA had previously worked with Cai for the 2nd and 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art exhibitions in 1996 (APT2) and 1999 (APT3), and had commissioned major gunpowder drawings for the collection, reflecting a long history of collaboration, strong relationships and trust between the Gallery and the artist.

RELATED: Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawings Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawings are a form of expressive drawing developed by Cai that uses loose gunpowder and fuses laid out on specially-made paper and ignited in an explosive display. The resultant drawing on paper is an elegant composition of burns, soot, powder residues and areas of parched and smoked paper.

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 / Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 / Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper / Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) / Purchased 1996 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang
APT3 1999 featuring Cai Guo-Qiang’s Bamboo bridge installed over the Queensland Art Gallery’s Watermall


By 2013, the work was realised — the pristine, utopic installation Heritage covered 1104 m2 of floor space, and composed of a range of life-sized imitation animals drinking from an enormous waterhole surrounded by white sand. Drips of water fall from the ceiling, creating a delicate ripple on the still water. The installation is viewed in the round via a boardwalk around the perimeter of the space and illumination was designed to achieve a daylight effect.

Heritage 2013 installed with drip mechanism. The only movement is a single drip of water that falls from the ceiling into the waterhole  / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA


Heritage was conceived by the artist from inspiration gained during a research and site visit that he made to Queensland in 2011. Cai was accompanied on excursions to Stradbroke Island and Lamington National Park in south east Queensland to provide expertise in the natural flora and fauna of the region. Heritage was triggered by his visit to the pristine fresh water lakes on Stradbroke Island, particularly Bummeira (Brown Lake).

The artwork is a crafted balance between spectacle and physical experience, imbued with unique Queensland qualities and underpinned by a subtle conceptual experience. In notes taken during a meeting with Cai in 2012, the artist states that, the aim of the work is to present a strange but poetic space with a sense of the Australian identity, symbolising the country’s diversity of culture and heritage but also a sense of a mythical paradise, the land of OZ.

Drinking together 2012, a sketch for Heritage by Cai Guo-Qiang

An example of Cai’s conceptualization is the very specific configuration that he developed for Heritage. Cai chose broadly familiar animals from all over the world, which comprise a variety of sizes, colours, and shapes, to create visual drama. The use of 99 animals is also significant, with 9 and 99 used repeatedly in Cai’s work. It represents an ‘incomplete’ rather than a round number, suggesting something more to come, as well as referencing Chinese numerology, in which the number nine is highly auspicious and means long-lasting. In all future presentations of Heritage, the artist indicated that smaller groupings of animals can be composed in multiples of nine.

Indigenous protocols were closely followed throughout the project, particularly given the focus of the exhibition on the land and Cai’s interest in the deep histories embedded within it.

The visit to Stradbroke Island included meetings with Quandamooka Elders and community representatives and a visit to the island’s indigenous cultural centre with the completed work a powerful presence and reflection on place and ecology.

RELATED: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage

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The materials of manufacture were an important consideration from a conservation perspective. Cai has previously produced imitation animals made with straw cores, however and alternate core material was to be considered. Production of the imitation animals was outsourced by the Cai Studio to the Quanzhou Xinwen Craft Co. Ltd (Xinwen) factory in Fujian province, China. After considering the Gallery’s request for an alternative core material Cai and the fabricators agreed to use polystyrene. Prior to full-scale production, the factory produced two prototypes, a kangaroo and a panda.

The process included carving polystyrene foam into the desired shape and inserting steel wire into the limbs to provide strength across adhesive joins. The steel wire was left protruding from the underside of the paws and feet to be used later as a securing mechanism during display. The polystyrene was wrapped with cotton gauze fabric and covered in a PVA adhesive to provide a hard and ridged exterior.

Cai Guo-Qiang checking on the fabrication process of Heritage, Fuzhou, China, 2013 / Courtesy Cai Studio / Photographs: Cai Canhuang

Fabrication process of Heritage, Fuzhou, China, 2013 / Courtesy Cai Studio / Photographs: Cai Canhuang


In the weeks just prior to commencing the installation process, Cai requested that the Gallery apply painted finishes to all the Heritage animals. The aim was to impart a life-like quality to imitation animals that, fresh from the factory, somewhat resembled large toys.

The Cai Studio provided a range of images of animals in their natural environment that displayed the effects that they hoped could be achieved, including wetness, muddy marks, soiling of fur, and trueto-life tongues. The preferred materials and methods included artists’ quality acrylic matt and gloss media and acrylic paint applied with brushes and by airbrushing.

QAGOMA staff applying painted finishes to the Heritage animals / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA

Polar bear from Heritage before and after finishing / Photograph: QAGOMA Conservation Department © QAGOMA

Construction and Installation

Lighting of the Heritage gallery space was designed to achieve a daylight effect requested by the artist. A total of 420 fluorescent lamps were fitted to the ceiling and covered with custom-made diffusers over which was stretched a high quality shade cloth that removed all ultraviolet light. Daylight-like illumination was integral to the experience of the artwork.

In preparation for installation, the imitation animals were transferred to the boardwalk around the perimeter of the gallery space. Cai coordinated the placement of each animal at the edge of the waterhole. The waterhole was necessarily constructed with an angled edge to provide the pool with sufficient depth.  

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Heritage 2013 was commissioned in 2008. Six years later it opened to the public.

A total of 420 fluorescent lamps were fitted to the ceiling and covered with custom-made diffusers over which was stretched a high quality shade cloth that removed all ultraviolet light / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Heritage is viewed in the round via a boardwalk around the perimeter of the waterhole / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
Cai Guo-Qiang coordinated the placement of each animal at the edge of the waterhole / Photographs: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
Cai Guo-Qiang / Heritage 2013 / 99 life-sized replicas of animals / Commissioned 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 | Gallery of Modern Art / © Cai Guo-Qiang / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Edited extract from ‘Conservation from conception: Commissioning an installation by Cai Guo-Qiang, Studies in Conservation’ from Elizabeth Wild, Amanda Pagliarino and Russell Storer, Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works, (IIC 2016 Los Angeles Congress). September 12-16, 2016

Elizabeth Wild, Conservator (Sculpture), QAGOMA
Amanda Pagliarino, Head of Conservation and Registration, QAGOMA
Russell Storer, Deputy Director of Curatorial and Research, National Gallery Singapore

Join us at GOMA until 26 April 2020

From major immersive experiences to smaller-scale treasures by Australian and international artists, the ‘Water‘ exhibition highlights this precious resource. Walk across a vast, rocky riverbed created by Olafur Eliasson; see animals from around the world gather together to drink from Cai Guo-Qiang’s brilliant blue waterhole; gaze at Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s snowman frozen in Brisbane’s summer heat; traverse a cloud of suspended gymnastic rings in a participatory artwork by William Forsythe, and reflect on the long history of our reliance on water through Megan Cope’s re-created midden. Tickets to ‘Water’ now on sale

Below the Tide Line

Kids and families can explore ocean conservation issues — particularly the impact that ghost nets have on the marine environment — via a spectacular artwork display, a drawing activity and an interactive screen-based animation. Find out more

The Noise of Waters

See films that explore our complex and contradictory relationship with water — the essence of life and an indefatigable, destructive force. Find out more

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Feature image detail: Cai Guo-Qiang Heritage 2013

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