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With 10,000 flying birds, the NGV's winter blockbuster is an exercise in time travel

Cai Guo-Qiang stands in front of his 'Murmuration' artwork
Photograph: Eugene Hyland

When superstar Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang was first asked to create an exhibition that sat alongside a display of eight Terracotta Warriors, he wasn’t at all interested.

When he was young, Cai had visited the site where the 8,000 Terracotta Warriors have stood for more than 2,000 years in the Shaanxi province in central China. He was blown away by the scale of achievement.

“I learned that the thousands of warriors were handcrafted just to be buried underground, and not to be seen,” he says, through an interpreter. “I thought it was incredible, just so fucking cool.”

But as Cai’s star began to rise and he travelled to galleries and museums around the world, he started to see travelling exhibitions of warriors that weren’t exactly inspiring.

“Each time only five to ten of them were on display. It’s like what you’d see in a Chinese restaurant,” he says.

It wasn’t until he started thinking about how he could create an artistic experience that was in dialogue with the warriors that he started getting excited about the prospect. The resulting exhibition features eight warriors and more than 170 Chinese antiquities presented alongside works by Cai, including his signature paintings created using gunpowder and 10,000 flying birds, leading the visitors through the galleries.

Photograph: Tobias Titz

“I thought to myself, since I’m participating in this collaboration, how can I bring the lingering spirit of the Terracotta Warriors from the underground, into the sky?”

What visitors mightn’t realise is that Cai’s birds are made of white porcelain, but he’s exploded gunpowder all over them to turn their colour charcoal and black. Cai grew up playing with fireworks, and gunpowder has been an essential part of his artwork since the early 1980s. He’s created spectacular, explosive displays using gunpowder and has carefully crafted artworks of unique and colourful gunpowder markings on silk and paper. He sees the use of gunpowder as a clear statement of rebellion.

“When I was growing up, my environment was very controlling,” Cai says. “I’ve also inherited this culturally timid nature from my father, who was a traditional Chinese painter and calligrapher. So I wanted to rebel, not only against my society, but against my own personal nature.”

While Cai needs to exercise an enormous amount of control to plan any of his gunpowder artworks – not only to achieve the desired effect, but to ensure they’re safely executed – everything flies out of his hands the moment a fuse is lit.

“The control is given to destiny,” he says.

Photograph: Sean Fennessy

It’s no coincidence that Cai – whose work often references Chinese history and uses several of the great Chinese inventions: silk, paper, gunpowder, porcelain – should be the artist whose work is shown alongside the Terracotta Warriors.

“We wanted to find a creative and innovative way to create a contemplative environment to allow our visitors to review present day Chinese identity,” says the NGV’s senior curator of Asian art, Wayne Crothers. “And you can’t understand present day China unless you understand where it’s come from.”

The Terracotta Army, which was only discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, is the centrepiece of an extraordinary mausoleum built for Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. He unified the nation that we know as China today, and the mausoleum – which has a circumference of more than six kilometres – was designed to ensure he had a smooth entry into the afterlife. It took 38 years to complete, and the NGV’s challenge was to create an exhibition that gives a sense of that extraordinary and unusual achievement.

“A lot of us dream of the idea of time travel, and this environment gives us the opportunity to traverse the ages and have communication with this incredible period of history,” Crothers says.

Photograph: Sean Fennessy

The warriors were designed to guard the mausoleum from any otherworldly intruders, and they are even facing the direction of the Qin dynasty’s traditional rivals. But now the warriors are themselves tightly guarded, and Cai had to travel to the site to convince the various authorities responsible for them.

“They were, at the beginning, sceptical, and oscillated back and forth a few times. When I visited earlier last year, I had a meeting with their representatives and I presented myself as someone decent and humble,” Cai says with a laugh.

But the relationship between his work and the warriors continued to evolve. Cai even drew inspiration from the warriors in his decision to finish his installation of pristine white porcelain birds with an explosion of gunpowder.

“You can see the testament of time and history on the Terracotta Warriors, but after being exploded with gunpowder, the porcelain is engraved with a sense of time.”

Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape and Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality are at NGV International as a joint exhibition until October 13.

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