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


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.