New York based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang uses history as a source of inspiration in his art practice. In his recent exhibition Falling Back to Earth 2014 at Brisbane’s QAGOMA, he explored the collective social behaviors in his installations Heritage and Head On. The concept of the exhibition’s title was inspired by Tao Yuan-Ming’s 4th Century Chinese poem Ah, homeward bound I go!. Cai explained: “it expressed returning to the harmonious relationship between man and nature, and re-embracing the tranquility in the landscape…to reflect on the contemporary society and the historical conditions that influenced it. At the same time, I try to find out about very specific conditions of the city, about things that affect human existence in a fundamental way.” Heritage was commissioned by QAGOMA and exclusive to the gallery, it portrays an idealised unity. It is contrasted by Head On with an aggressive depiction of collective chaos, from the Deutsche Bank Collection in Berlin.
Heritage was inspired during Cai’s 2011 trip to Queensland’s Stradbroke Island where the natural paradise struck him to create an utopian scene. The installation depicts ninety nine animal replicas made of carved styrofoam covered with goat fur, drinking from a common waterhole, while water drips at timed intervals from the ceiling into the pool. The different species of animal symbolizes multiculturalism. It also has a strong reference to Noah’s Ark that suggests the calm after a storm and gives hope for a peaceful future. The scene is a metaphor of the world uniting in an idealised collective mentality. The concept is reinforced by the aqua blue water and the pristine sand, establishing a dream-like atmosphere that captures a world with no war and rivalry.
The utopian dream scape of Heritage is contrasted by the harsh reality in Head On. Cai visited the Soviet Memorial and the remains of the Berlin Wall in 2005. He was struck by the extreme atmosphere and urban planning of the reunited Berlin, particularly the invisible tension between East and West Germany despite the absence of the Berlin Wall. Head On depicts a pack of ninety nine highly realistic wolves hurling themselves across the exhibition room into a glass wall that is the same height and thickness as the Berlin Wall. Each wolf was created with metal wires and covered with painted sheepskins. Wolves have a significant symbolism in Western culture; they are considered borderline creatures between human and animal hence the popular legends of werewolf in 19th Century Germany and the portrayal of the ‘big bad wolf’ in Little Red Riding Hood. However Cai saw the gregarious character of wolves and used it as an analogy of the collective mentality in human social behavior. The wolf pack depicted the socially oriented behavior in our society where people are foolishly following the crowd and hastily aiming for conventional goals, disregarding the consequences. It demonstrated collective heroism but it also revealed the consequence of senseless actions. The installation addressed the desperation of belonging and questioned the audience of self-responsibility versus following the mass. This hyper-realistic artwork is overwhelming in it beauty but it is also a fable of harsh reality.