For Cai Guo-Qiang, making art about the present also means striking up a dialogue with the past.

Since the 1980s, the Quanzhou-born, New York-based artist has used disparate materials like porcelain and gunpowder to make installations and drawings exploring transformation, connection and globalisation. But his pieces also reference the history, philosophy and mythology of ancient China.

Next month, Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape will open at NGV International in tandem with Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, an exhibition that features eight life-size figures and two horses from the army of terracotta warriors discovered in 1974 in the tomb of the country’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The show’s curator, Wayne Crothers, believes this is a natural pairing.

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“The terracotta warriors have been heralded as the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century,” says Crothers, the NGV’s senior curator of Asian art. “[China’s first emperor] Qin Shi Huang had a tyrannical reputation, but after hundreds of years of turmoil was able to unify China into one state and lay the foundations for China as we know it today. He is iconic in Chinese folklore, poetry and grand epics.”

Crothers says the strong influence of Cai’s Chinese background on his work makes for an interesting interplay between the ancient and contemporary exhibitions. “Cai’s practice is informed by his cultural identity and love of history and philosophy, so he was very enthusiastic about this project,” he says.

The NGV has been exploring the place of contemporary art on a continuum of visual culture, sparking conversations between artists from different backgrounds and eras. Take the 2016 Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei show, or the recent pairing of Dutch artist M.C. Escher and Japan’s Nendo studio. This new undertaking is its most ambitious yet, calling for a dedicated installation crew from Shaanxi as well as negotiations for gunpowder permits.

Crothers says the shows features artifacts from as early as 1000 BC alongside five brand-new works, including Cai’s Transience II (Peony), a gunpowder painting made in March at a Port Melbourne warehouse. It, too, will revolve around resonances between the ancient and modern. Cai has also created an installation of 10,000 porcelain birds suspended from the ceiling that respond to a calligraphic drawing of Mount Li, the site of Qin’s tomb.

“The porcelain installation was produced in China and coloured with gunpowder ignition here in Melbourne. We have 10 warriors, but the birds recreate the sense of awe of viewing the site – the fear and the scale,” Crothers says. “Cai is also collaborating on the exhibition’s design, creating immersive environments for the presentation of the terracotta warriors and his own work.”

The historic and modern-day elements of the exhibition both focus on ritual and ceremony – a part of contemporary Chinese identity that dates back to ancient times.

“The first section of the exhibition is about ancestral treasures and rituals held by the Zhou dynasty – [from the] Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period through bronze, jade and gold objects. These establish ancestral lineages back to the third millennium BC, the mythical Yellow Emperor, immortality and the mandate from heaven to rule,” says Crothers. “Cai’s pieces are very atmospheric and the way the gunpowder imbues itself in stains and burns [creates] a profundity around ritual and ceremony. There is also his 20-metre-long mural of a cypress forest which creates a contemplative ambience of antiquity, ritual and lineage, which is so relevant to Chinese families today.”

Crothers hopes the exhibitions show that the art of the past can reveal something of the modern condition, while highlighting the ways in which contemporary artists are shaped by what came before. But he also wants Australian audiences to witness Chinese history and culture away from the headlines and on their own terms.

“Everything comes from somewhere, and history is our textbook for the future,” he says. “I think it’s crucial for Australians to become aware of how strong ancient Chinese philosophies are. Rather than what we’re told, it’s about the education we have and our personal interpretation. I think this is what art is all about.”

Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape and Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality show at NGV International from May 24 to October 13.

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