This year, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces brings the legendary Terracotta Warriors all the way from China to the National Gallery of Victoria. The collection of terracotta sculptures, known as The Terracotta Army, were originally made for the mausoleum of the infamous Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang after his death in 210 BC. According to Chinese historian Sima Qian, 700,000 men were required to complete his tomb which was to be guarded by a troop of terracotta soldiers fashioned from moulds. Though over two thousand years old, the Terracotta warriors were not discovered until 1974, when local farmers in the Shaanxi province of China unearthed fragments of the warriors when digging a well. The Terracotta Army consisted of over 8,000 soldiers of varying military ranks, 130 chariots and over 500 horses. Most of the terracotta sculptures still remain buried within the mausoleum, and Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb still remains unopened to this day.
The NGV are not just bringing one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century to Melbourne but also showcasing the works of contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who is inspired by his culture’s philosophies and traditions. The Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: Terracotta Warriors and Cai Guo-Qiang is a unique collaboration between the Chinese sculptors from the third century BCE and a contemporary Chinese artist from the 21st century. It is an exhibition that transcends time and focuses on what elements constitute Chinese art, and what philosophies from the Qin Dynasty remain true for Chinese artists today.
The exhibition begins with Cai Guo-Qiang’s The Transient Landscape, which features five artworks commissioned by the NGV. Three of these artworks are paintings that were created by a series of gunpowder explosions that were set off in an old warehouse in Williamstown. Cai Guo-Qiang has said that he is drawn to the technique of using gunpowder because of the spontaneity and unpredictability of the explosions: ‘There’s a sense of destiny. “What will happen when you ignite it?” It is an unknown which you will accomplish with the help of an invisible force. I’d often say a silent prayer. That’s what draws me to gunpowder.’
The resulting pieces, Flow (Cypress), Transience II (Peony) and Pulse (Mountain), are three exquisite works created right here in Melbourne. It is almost hard to believe that a series of gunpowder explosions on silk canvas could produce such vibrant and earthy colours.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s other two installations, Murmuration (Landscape) and Transience I (Peony), are porcelain artworks sculpted and fired in Dehu, Fujian province on the southeast coast of mainland China. Murmuration (Landscape) is an impressive array of porcelain sculptures: a swarm of 10,000 starlings suspended from the ceiling that produces a 3D impression of a calligraphic drawing of Mount Li, evoking the dynasty of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his Terracotta Army. While Transience II (Peony) is a 360-degree gunpowder drawing depicting the life cycle of the peony flower from the flowering of the bud to the death of the bloom, Transience I (Peony) is a porcelain sculpture of a peony garden bed which has also been exposed to coloured gunpowder. Another artistic impression of Mount Li, Cai Guo-Qiang has purposely used peonies – a flower with a booming period of six weeks – to remark on the short-lived Qin Dynasty, which first bloomed with Emperor Qin Shi Huang whose necropolis lies adjacent to the mountain.
Peonies have been historically used within Chinese art, and are the traditional floral symbol of China, representing riches and honour. Cai Guo-Qiang, however, is particularly moved by the withering of the peony flower and has reflected that: ‘Sometimes I wonder if life is merely an illusion, a dream, and that the soul actually manifests upon dying, which is the origin and the eternal state of things…’ The peonies are created with porcelain (handcrafting porcelain is an ancient Chinese tradition) before coloured gunpowder is used to give the piece the colour of spring: bright purple, reds and blues. It should also be mentioned that gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century and is one of China’s many famous discoveries.
Out of the 8,000 terracotta soldiers guarding Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, eight are currently visiting the NGV. Generals, military officers, infantrymen, civil officials and archers in various postures, and in armoured and unarmoured states, all stand majestically in a white room alongside their chariot horses. They all face massive mirrors embedded into the walls, staring intensely into their reflections.
The armoured generals are depicted in a distinctive headdress that indicates their authority, with a long-armoured tunic that tapers at the waist. They stand in a commanding position: back straight and chest forward.
The armoured military officers wear a more intricately designed armour worn over the robes of the palace guard. They are positioned with their right arm raised and a closed hand, suggesting they may have been holding a lance. They are generally ten centimetres shorter than the generals and have less of an imposing aura, but are still elegantly poised, their faces stoic and ready to receive commands from their superiors.
The kneeling archers set themselves apart from the rest, with their position sparking a lot of curious questions. They were originally found in a battle formation surrounded by standing archers and as their real, breathing counterparts would suggest, the kneeling archers are in a fighting pose.
Towards the end of the room are the great chariot horses. While Emperor Qin Shihuang also engaged in the practice of burying real live horses in his tomb, he was the first to include terracotta horse sculptures to help guard his spirit in the afterlife. Two bronze chariots were also found at his mausoleum, decorated with four kilograms of gold, three kilograms of silver and painted dragons. Only two that have been excavated so far, so replicas have been made to be lent out to international museums. Despite being replicas, the two bronze chariots are still impressive.
Alongside The Terracotta Army and Cai Guo-Qiang’s Transient Landscape are also 150 historical art pieces, including pottery, sculptures and decorative swords lent by museums and archaeological sites from the Shaanxi province. One particularly interesting piece is a huge door knocker that takes the form of a mythological beast and would have been used as a centrepiece for doors and gateways. Made of jade stone, it dates from the Han Dynasty, 207 BCE – 220CE. Many of the art pieces incorporate jade as it is a symbol of preciousness and beauty in Chinese culture and the embodiment of Confucian virtues. A decorative belt plaque, made of jade, gold, agate and turquoise, is another Han Dynasty piece used to represent a person’s status. It is a gorgeous piece that stands out amongst the darker, subtle colours of the earthenware pottery.
Grain storage containers, measuring vessels and flasks also make up a huge part of the display. All made with expertise and an artistic hand, they have remained intact for over 1000 years.
Domestic life in ancient China was clearly an inspiration for many creatives as all the cooking utensils and storage containers are beautifully made. A toy fish made from clay and intended as a playful object for children is one of the more compelling pieces, and gives further insight into Chinese domestic life in the Qin Dynasty.
There is artistry present in all areas of chinese life: from the grand structures of the royal palace to the beautifully crafted pottery found within the domestic home. The need to create art weaved with philosophical ideologies is testimony to the richness of Chinese culture; a tradition that Cai Guo-Qiang proudly continues with Transient Landscape.
An educational experience through both ancient and contemporary Chinese art, The Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: Terracotta Warriors and Cai Guo-Qiang is a well-curated and thoughtful exhibition that encourages visitors to reflect and appreciate creative and artistic talents throughout the centuries
Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: Terracotta Warriors and Cai Guo-Qiang is currently at the NGV International in Melbourne and will run until October 13th 2019.
Photographs and words by Rasheeda Wilson.