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Cai Guo-Qiang's Falling Back to Earth

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by Stephanie Payet (subscribe)
I'm a UQ student from Cairns living in Brisbane, exploring the city beyond the reviews.
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It was on a particularly rainy afternoon that breaking free of the college bubble led me to the Gallery of Modern Art and, more notably, Cai Guo-Qiang's featured exhibition, 'Falling Back to Earth'. I'd endured months waiting to bear witness to Cai's mastery and I was neither disappointed nor surprised: it was mind-blowing, but I had expected nothing less from the internationally-acclaimed artist.

Consisting of four installations, 'Falling Back to Earth' is a visually-stunning and incredibly thought-provoking exhibition focusing on our relationships with each other, and with nature. This is Cai's first solo exhibition in Australia and as such, some of the pieces draw from the unique landscapes of Queensland.

People fill the room. I take note of the sand near my feet and I look up to see Cai's mesmerising vision, Heritage. The massive installation depicts 99 animal forms from all across the globe, gathered to drink from a single crystal-clear waterhole. The room settles into a silence of wonder. Newly-commissioned for this Australian exhibition, Heritage is based on an image that came to Cai Guo-Qiang after visiting North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane, and represents Cai's perception of utopia.

Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang's 'Heritage'

I find myself engulfed by the roots of a magnificent native eucalypt. This is Cai's second work, Eucalyptus. This tree, that was to be cleared for an urban community development, has been reborn under Cai's innovative expertise. Australian landscape once again lends itself to this artwork, the inspiration of this artwork coming from the Lamington National Park in the Gold Coast hinterland.

An interactive accompaniment creates a contemplative environment, where Cai invites his audience to ponder the cycle of life and the passage of time how we all grow and age, and can be reborn. One visitor suggests that the eucalypt be stretched across the border of two countries at war with one another: "May it be a symbol of peace and unity".

[ADVERT]Cai's traditional Tea Pavilion is a place of rest. This beautifully-designed space provides an opportunity to reflect upon the exhibition whilst enjoying samples of Tie Guan Yin tea from Fujian, Cai's home province. Tea Pavilion also features gongfu tea ceremonies which are held every Sunday afternoon at 2pm.

The final installation in Cai's exhibition and one of Cai's signature pieces caught me off guard. Originally created for a German exhibition in 2006 and inspired by Berlin's turbulent history, it depicts 99 life-like wolves hurtle themselves through the air towards a glass wall, where they crash head-on and turn back only to return to the beginning and once again jump to their inevitable doom. Cai realises in his artwork his insights into human nature: that there is power in unity; that following blind faith or misguiding our collective attentions is dangerous; that we have difficulty learning from our mistakes; that the invisible, unattributed barriers can be the hardest obstacles to break through. Head On is nothing short of a masterpiece, transcending generations.

Behind the artworks lies a profound reflection in the notion of coming full circle of working through the obstacles we face in our relationships with each other and with our environment, now and into the future.

Cai Guo-Qiang's 'Falling Back to Earth' exhibition runs until 11 May 2014. For more information, go to the website.
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When: Until 11 May
Where: Gallery of Modern Art, QLD Cultural Centre
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