Exhibition: Falling Back to Earth by Cai Guo-Qiang at GOMA

 

Falling Back To Earth

Published in Stradbroke Island News

Falling Back to Earth, Exhibition at GOMA to 11 May 2014.
‘It reminds me of this past week in parliament,’ joked Queensland Arts Minister Ian Walker when he viewed Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation titled Head On at GOMA’s new exhibition, Falling Back to Earth. This mesmerising work features 99 wolves hurling themselves at a glass wall and perhaps Mr Walker saw it as a metaphor for the proclivity of politicians to make blind and foolish decisions.

Another, equally stunning installation is Heritage which was inspired by the artist’s visit to Blue Lake on North Stradbroke Island in 2011. In surroundings of shadowless dreamy white, 99 wild animals from all parts of the world drink peacefully from a blue lake which is surrounded by pristine white sand. On one level the installation expresses the theme behind Cai’s exhibition, which according to him is ‘the return to a harmonious relationship between man and nature, re-embracing the tranquillity in the landscape.’

Certainly what is conveyed by this installation, albeit disquietingly, is a sense of stepping into a lost paradise, an experience Cai obviously shared with every other visitor who sees Straddie for the first time. In Chinese numerology, however, the number 99 symbolises something incomplete, something awaiting fulfilment, and Cai conveys this in a subtle way. The animals seem at peace but of course they are not animals, being merely constructions of polystyrene under hides of unknown provenance, and it is the unreality of the scene that gradually becomes the viewer’s dominant impression. What you are looking at, the installation seems to say, is the ideal. It is not reality. As subtly insistent as the single drop of water that silently breaks the surface of the lake, the frozen tableau of beautiful endangered creatures made life-like by art confronts us with what we have lost in our environment and what we are yet to lose if we don’t take action.

To judge by gallery visitors’ responses, a similarly disquieting effect seems to have been produced by another installation titled Eucalyptus which is no more and no less than a magnificent upended gum-tree. On the wall alongside, on drawing-paper provided, one visitor’s message says of the paper it was written on: ‘This was a tree’, while another one simply reads: ‘Protect Stradbroke Island’s lakes and wildlife. End sand-mining’.

An artist of international standing, Cai Guo-Qiang is no stranger to the Brisbane art scene, having produced a huge gunpowder-driven serpent on paper in homage to indigenous conceptions of the Brisbane River, as well as other installations for two Asia-Pacific Triennials. It is the mark of good art that it has the power to raise questions in the minds of its viewers and Falling Back to Earth is no exception to Cai’s earlier work. You won’t be disappointed by a trip to GOMA to ponder and wonder over his installations and what they suggest about our current relationship with our environment.

Meeting Pharlap

March 28, 2011

I was always a bit suspicious of the hype surrounding Pharlap, all that carry-on about a dead horse. I was a bit cynical you might say. So I was unprepared during a weekend in Melbourne not so long ago, for what happened when I wandered into the Museum Building at Fitzroy. In a darkened room full of spotlit exhibits I passed a sign saying PHARLAP and at the same moment, out of the corner of my eye, noticed an extremely large horse. Ohmigod! I thought. Is that him? He’s enormous.

The stuffed animal was so huge it didn’t need any fanfare to make you stop in your tracks, didn’t even need the knowledge of its mythic status to make you stare. How could any horse be so big?

Pharlap is a giant of a horse. Why don’t they tell you that? Or perhaps they do, but you have to actually see the hugeness with your own eyes before you understand. I circled the glass case, seeing the way the hair on his back joined the pelt of his belly in a line like waves meeting. His haunches seemd too narrow. Shouldn’t they be bulging and muscular? Yet there they were, undeniably thin and presumably true to the musculature which the taxidermist had reconstructed.
But if you think about it, it makes sense. Pharlap was very, very fast, that’s what the myth is all about, and narrow haunches are designed for speed. Anyone who’s seen a big-hipped woman trying to run knows how awkward that can be. The spindliness of Pharlap’s legs struck me too. They spoke of vulnerability, the vulnerability of all horses, but much more so here because of the enormous weight they had to support.

I circled the glass case until I was back again looking up at Pharlap’s rather sad eyes and by then I was a convert. The horses I’m used to, hobby horses in paddocks in the outer Brisbane suburb where I live, are midgets in comparison with this great animal. They would be about half the size of Pharlap. All horses are noble, a word that is cliched only because it is true, but how much more noble this animal is, rearing up so high you have to tilt back your head to take him in, like a tourist in a cathedral.

Standing before the taxidermist’s work that was somehow also the real horse, Pharlap himself, I felt sad about the way he had died, sad that he had died at all. It’s right to keep him with us, right that he should never be forgotten. Words are just words and any number of words have been written about Pharlap, but it’s his body that tells the true tale.

The Tungabadhra River

May 2011

Just had some excellent news. My short story, Sharma, has been selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing  Anthology to be published later this year! In the meantime you can find it on their website: http://www.new-asian-writing.com/?p=493

sharma

Peter and I met Sharma in the early 80s in India.  He was an exasperating but beautiful man who took us on such an adventure that we’ve never forgotten him. When we went back to India a quarter of a century later we made a pilgrimage to the place where we’d met up with him, but alas!  he was living in another town.  Sharma was (is!) special, a rare spirit, and I’m so glad that he has made it into print.

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The Young Desire it by Kenneth Mackenzie

The young desire it. Sex, that is. This is a story of sexual awakening, the ‘unquenchable thirst’ and ‘first springing desire’ of the young, and of another desire − that of adults to thwart them. It is also a story told with psychological truth in achingly beautiful prose.

Life isn’t easy in the 1920s for young Charles Fox who has been sent to a prestigious Anglican boarding school. At fourteen he is innocent in a way few adolescents today are. Having spent his childhood with his widowed mother on an isolated farm with only his dreamy imagination to sustain him, he receives a sickening shock on his first day at school when sexually assaulted by a group of older students. Worse is to follow when he attracts the attention of the languages master, Mr Penworth, a disaffected Englishman with a penchant for beautiful boys.

At first Charles doesn’t realise the reason for Penworth’s interest in him and finds in his company an antidote to the mindless roughness of the playground. But innocent though he is, he does know that men aren’t supposed to kiss each other.

The jibes and physical attacks of his class-mates force him to develop a carapace of defiance and isolation. Even to a fellow sufferer he cannot acknowledge what is happening to him:

‘To have done that would have been to admit his own dislike and fear, which he intended never to do.’

At last comes the Easter break and the brief return home where he meets a young girl called Margaret. The attraction between them is instant, experienced by both in the wordless way of the very young. How their relationship develops is the ‘plot’, woven into the wider concerns of a coming-of-age story.

Charles is discovering his sexuality in a bad place − a boarding school hedged about with exploitative sexual practices and the malice of unthinking boys. His growing understanding, his interest in intellectual ideas and blind groping towards what it means to be male are all explored by Mackenzie. Indeed, what constitutes ‘manhood’ can fairly be said to be the sub-theme of the novel.

The Young Desire It is autobiographically based. The detached voice of the narrator comments on the behaviour of his younger self who views his experience with ‘youth’s impatient, humourless eye.’ In the older man’s descriptions of that experience we feel the boy’s pain, a pain contained within prose of redemptive clarity.

In his desire for the girl he has met in the open fields during a sudden storm, Charles discovers that, contrary to the old adage, all the world does not love a lover. Though she clothes her motives in double-speak, his kindly but distant mother is antagonistic to his interest in Margaret. Driven by his own sexual feelings for Charles, Mr Penworth is equally negative. In the face of this opposition from the two important adults in his life, a spirit of defiance is aroused in the boy.

The changing seasons reflect his sexual awakening. In spring Charles finds the roses in his mother’s garden ‘hot as the faces of amorous girls.’ Returning in the stunned pause of summer, the changed season is linked to the changed boy. His heightened sensual delight in the summer landscape mirrors his unspoken desire for Margaret. Under the great hot sky she places her hand over his eyes.

‘If he opened them he saw a dim colour of flesh, with light coming sharply under the edges; it felt warm and alive, as though her naked body were against his face.’

Mackenzie’s simple spacious language penetrates deeper truths, as in Charles’ reflections on the nature of death following the suicide of the headmaster. For the fatherless boy the headmaster had represented a ‘positive masculinity’ which Penworth lacks. Charles is seeking a father figure and finds it in the old man, as well as in his house-master, Mr Jolly − a wonderful portrait by the way.

What a pleasure this book is. Readers will find in its pages an evocation of that strange half-world between childhood and adulthood which we all once inhabited. I can think of only one other novel that is comparable and as nearly good: Antonia White’s equally classic Frost In May which fictionalises her own experiences in a Catholic girls’ boarding school.

I cannot remember a book I have loved so much in the last twenty years of reading. Mackenzie’s classic sentence structure, eighteenth-century in its precision, rarely falls into excess. What especially enchants is the almost hymnal quality of the slow-rolling rhythms:

‘The days were lengthening, mysterious now with spring’s virginity and promise; the cold nights were shorter, brilliant in moonlight green or the dark silver of starlight, cloudless, windless, frosty and serenely still.’

The Young Desire It was written white hot in six weeks by the author when in his early twenties, under the impulse of intensely remembered experience. It is our good fortune that it has been rescued from oblivion and re-printed by Text Publishing, that champion of the best of Australian literature. I am wary of praising too highly for fear of setting up expectations that might prevent other readers from discovering their own delights. All I can say is, this is a book you won’t regret reading.