When I was little, I loved to paint and was quite good at it. I remember my grandmother always kept my works, because she believed that I was more talented than my father, who painted with ink and calligraphy.
Growing up in Quanzhou, I felt that the society and the time I lived in were oppressive, and I needed to liberate myself by making art. This desire prompted me to search for a medium that freed me, in a way that the watercolors and oil paints could not.
I tend to be relatively cautious and timid, serious and controlling, which are not very good traits for an artist. I needed to be more open and bold, so I began to play with a fan to blow the paint. Other times, I reversed the paintings and let them broil on top of a fire. Later on, I threw mini rockets toward the canvases. Gradually, I began to create works with gunpowder, and my works became more conceptual. Creating art has always been enjoyable and amusing; it has been my time-space tunnel.
I went from harbor to harbor, telling stories of different cultures. Yet the story of my mother harbor was embedded in every story I told. Although my growth and development have taken roots in different cultures, the Chinese cultural heritage has been the foundation of my exploration in the methodologies of artistic creation, and I have never abandoned it.
My relationship with the Queensland Art Museum dates back many years. I participated in their Asia-Pacific Triennial twice – both in 1996 and 1999. Unfortunately, there were accidents both times. In 1996, an accident took place at the fireworks factory, setting off the gunpowder prepared for my explosion event, Dragon or Rainbow Serpent. The second time, I was responsible for the accident. I prepared ninety-nine small silver zinc boats, filling each of them with rubbing alcohol and lighting them so that they were filled with blue flames. These boats sank to the bottom of the Brisbane River—one by one—before they were ever seen by the public.
However, the Queensland Art Museum never viewed these as failures. Instead, they treated them as inevitabilities, bound to occur when an artist challenges the status quo to explore new possibilities of artistic presentation, allows art to face nature, or collaborates with distinct cultures and people. Therefore, although the museum’s director has changed three times, and the museum has since expanded, establishing a new venue (Gallery of Modern Art, GOMA), our dialogs have never ceased. Four years ago, the museum decided to present my solo exhibition. In particular, they offered a 1100m² large gallery space to accommodate one single installation.
I therefore had to decline several exhibition invitations from various institutions in Australia, including the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in Sydney, and I also started to visit Queensland for inspiration. However, the creative process didn't go very smoothly: originally I thought it would be easy to come up with ideas, because I constantly ran into “problems” in Brisbane. During these more recent trips, though, I came to realise that Queensland itself lacked problems – the wind is gentle, the sun radiant – it is like spring all year. This actually made it more difficult for me to find an approach. I never expected that I would be at a loss about what to do [for the exhibition].
During my last visit, I was with my wife and daughter. Observing the white sand, clear blue water, and fallen leaves of various colors at the bottom of the Brown Lake, I suddenly felt that Queensland was so beautiful that it seemed to be the “last paradise” on Earth. This thought alone illustrated that Earth as a collective whole and mankind had a problem. The concept of the exhibition started from this realisation.
In Heritage, ninety-nine animals – both predator and prey, gentle and aggressive – coexist harmoniously, all lowering their heads humbly and drinking from the same pond. Water drips, triggering ripples that underscore the serenity of the space, giving the piece a religious solemnity.
All beings should be able to coexist peacefully; unfortunately, the vision is a Shangri-La, and one that can never be realised. I have never been keen on depicting people in my artwork, but a number of my works use animals to comment on humanity.
I picked familiar animals from the five continents – both predator and prey.
No, no, no. Nothing was excavated from the gallery’s foundations. Instead, we produced an elevated ramp to form the lakeshore, which surrounds a pool of water. That being said, the museum was incredibly supportive. They provided solid technical support to ensure the 170 tons of water wouldn’t leak, and that the air conditioning system on the ground wouldn’t be affected.
Unlike my past work series that dealt with the “extraterrestrials” and “cosmos”, this exhibition - by presenting the utopian beauty of Queensland and Heritage - is focused on Earth, reminding people of the ecological issues that surround us. However, as we were completing the installation of Heritage, I suddenly realised the piece relates to the cosmos: if in the vast universe, only Earth held beings capable of contemplating the universe, imagine our responsibility!
The ninety-nine wolves in Head On were manufactured in a factory in Fuzhou, China, before they were shipped to Brisbane. In Eastern philosophy, “nine” has many implications. It’s a symbol of infinity, insufficiency, and incompleteness. As an odd number,“9” can easily break symmetry, therefore lacking visual rigidity in the eyes of an artist. Admittedly, with “99” objects it's hard to perceive whether or not the layout is symmetrical; however, sometimes the psychological effect it generates for an artist is also significant. "99" is also a lucky number.
For me, the infinite possibilities of my art rely on the dialogs and experiences I have with the local culture. I am inspired by this, absorbing parts of the culture into my works. I’m neither interested in nor good at shipping a culture to local people, asking them to accept. The tree should be intimate and familiar to the Australian audience. It’s because of this relationship to locals that its use is like an adventure for me as the artist and is what interests me.
I hope that when seeing my works, the audience can be touched directly. Through my works, they experience the aesthetics of the piece, come to understand and be surprised by the art, and become concerned about and develop expectations for this planet that we inhabit. As an artist, my work often involve issues that are the focus of the public attention, and often, they prompt people to think about and to be attentive to the issues. However, these are not the objectives of my artistic creations; they are the outcomes.
I just came back from Sicily, where I spent a splendid break with my family over the New Year. Argentina may be my next stop, which again will be an unknown world that will attract a little boy’s interest. We are also trying to travel Falling Back to Earth from GOMA to China. The idea of the exhibition and the issues it has brought up seem to be more urgently needed there.