Visual Arts

Falling Back to Earth review (GOMA, Brisbane)

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If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a noise? It’s the old philosophical chestnut that’s been the subject of much debate and many jokes, of course, but Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation, one part of his Falling Back to Earth exhibition at Brisbane’s GOMA, forces us to face the question in a serious way. Enter a huge gallery, and you are confronted by the entire root system of a 31-metre eucalyptus, stretching along the entire Long Gallery, lying on its side not as a collection of logs, but as an entire tree supported by metal brackets. It still has a few dry leaves, and in its dead perfection it stops even the most casual visitor to stop and think.
We’re used to seeing rainforest trees, dead or alive, in their natural setting, but to have this beautiful work of nature in a different context, on display like a skeleton in a laboratory, untouched, unprocessed, unexplained, unreconstructed, is to bring all our ideas about art and beauty into focus. Look at it from both ends, take time to ponder. The massive root system that held up the tree for hundreds of year is a like a tangled drawing on its own. The bark is mottled and spotted, each part of it a work of art. The hollows in the decayed branches, once home to the creatures of the forest – where are they now? It is simply (in every sense of the word) breathtaking, and even the little children were silenced by its majesty, and keen to try their hand at drawing it with the pencils and paper provided, while most of the adult visitors just stood and wondered.
It raises the big philosophical questions which don’t need to be explored here – but as an image it will stay with you for ever. And this is true of everything in this pared-back, uncluttered exhibition, where there are only three main installations, and not much smaller stuff to distract the attention.
The famous one, of course, is Head On, where 99 life-like wolves jump from one end of another huge gallery in a continuous arc, hurling themselves at a high glass wall only to fall back to earth, pick themselves up and, as Browning says in another context, “baffled, get up to begin again – so the chase takes up one’s life, that’s all”. Cai’s analogy is of the Berlin Wall, and the often misdirected energy of the German people trying to get to the other side. The irony is that the wall is, in fact, almost able to be jumped over, if only the wolves could launch themselves a little higher in the air. But they don’t, and slink back to the end of the gallery in a continuous curved line, some snarling, some infinitely patient, so life-like that we almost expect them to move. It’s as if we are seeing just one still from an endless loop of film, and Cai’s genius is that he makes the non-existent movement seem possible, almost palpable.
Quite apart from the artistry of the creation of the individual wolves themselves, I was astonished by the awe-struck behaviour of the younger people in the gallery. Free to walk among the wolves, they didn’t try to touch them or interfere with them in any way, so imposing they were – although I did notice two 12-year-olds giggling as they tried to count the number of female wolves as opposed to males. Well, it kept them off the streets, I suppose.
This same reverence was displayed in the third major instillation, one that GOMA has purchased for permanent display. Heritage 2013 takes up another huge gallery space, where 99 animals from all continents (99 is an important symbolic number for Cai) are gathered around a massive water hole surrounded by pure white sand. Another moment frozen in time, but in this one we are invited, not to think of perpetual motion like that of the wolves, but to ponder on the significance of this harmony of enemies in the universal need for water. Most of the animals are life size, but some are small, especially the elephants, so that there is a visual parity between hunter and hunted. The lion is almost lying down with the lamb, but as in Waiting for Godot, things do not remain unchanged. At irregular intervals, a single drop of water disturbs the lake and, if you’re lucky enough to be there alone, it also disturbs the silence, suggesting that although time can be slowed down, it never comes to a complete stop.
This is another installation through which the audience can wander at will, and like the others it invites you to stop and think. And after all, “what is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” This is an exhibition to return to again and again and, as it’s open until 11 May, there’s plenty of time for that, or even to make the trip from other parts of Australia, because it’s an exhibition unique in its beauty and stillness.

CaiGuo-Qiang_Heritage_2013_1-web
Cai Guo-Qiang
Heritage 2013

CaiGuo-Qiang_HeadOn_2006_2-web
Cai Guo-Qiang
Head On 2006

[box]Falling Back to Earth is at the Gallery of Modern Art until 11 May. Tickets are available at qagoma.qld.gov.au[/box]

2 responses to “Falling Back to Earth review (GOMA, Brisbane)

  1. I went to this exhibition expecting to marvel. The concepts are interesting,if not all that original. What disappointed was the execution. I had thought the animals would be real but stuffed, they are fake stuffed animals not always anatomically correct for example the horses hoofs are wrong and the one animal with. Identifiable genitalia, a male wollf had what looked like a strap -on penis from an adult sex shop. Since it all would appeal mostly to young children why aren’t they allowed on the sand surrounding the pool and why do the attendants have to use prissy feather dusters to tidy the sand edges?

  2. This review seems to overlook the fact that this art is like a circus display and would probably be better off down the road on the Gold Coast at movie world. Art as spectacle is becoming a fact of Australian art galleries and art that could double as a shop display is seen to be o.k. for the public. Obvious imagery does nothing for the imagination or the emotions, especially considering the badly made animals and wolves. It’s commercial art pretending to be something loftier.

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