The Winter of Warriors

In a breathtaking juxtaposition of Chinese art ancient and modern, the National Gallery of Victoria presents China’s Terracotta Warriors alongside new work from one of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists.

Much of ancient art sits at a crossroads between the classifications of art and archaeology. China’s famed Terracotta Warriors—the thousands of terracotta sculptures that depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, initially created to protect the first Emperor of China in his afterlife and rediscovered in 1974 by archaeologists—are widely considered the eighth wonder of the world. They are also one of the oldest known examples of an artistic masterpiece.

This year, eight of these Terracotta Warriors will visit Melbourne as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Winter Masterpieces exhibition series, alongside two life-size horses from the Imperial Army and two half-size replica bronze chariots, each drawn
by four horses.

The Terracotta Warriors from China's Shaanxi Province

An incredible spectacle in their own right, these ancient treasures will be further contextualised by a series of artefacts loaned from museums and archaeological sites around China’s Shaanxi province, where the entombed Terracotta Warriors were discovered. More than 150 historic artefacts—including priceless works of gold, bronze and jade dating from the Western Zhou through to the Han dynasties (1046BC–220AD)—will together form a precious display of Chinese history and culture unprecedented in Australia. This exhibition is literally a priceless experience.

Rather than exhibiting these artefacts as if in a time-capsule, NGV Winter Masterpieces opens a dialogue between past and present through a parallel presentation of work by Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists. Fusing enduring eastern philosophies with elaborate modern displays, Guo-Qiang has created immersive environments for this Melbourne exhibition—such as a ceiling strung with 10,000 suspended porcelain birds, and a monumental sculpture of porcelain peonies sitting at the centre of 360-degree gunpowder drawing.

An explosive display by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Bridging ancient history and contemporary culture, this year the Winter Masterpieces Exhibition builds on its reputation as a not-to-miss annual show. Founded in 2011, previous exhibitions to have brightened the mid-winter cold include a comprehensive body of Vincent van Gogh’s seasons paintings; an exhibition featuring more than 200 works from French Impressionist Edgar Degas; and the world-renowned collection of Catherine the Great compiled from The Hermitage in St Petersburg.

While these previous incarnations of NGV Winter Masterpieces were all heavy-hitting, comprehensive and global, the 2019 exhibition is set to be the biggest yet in a number of ways. The global reputation of China’s Terracotta Warriors is legendary, and the chance to see them in-person presents an historic sightseeing opportunity that would rarely present itself outside of China.

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang says: “[The two exhibitions] are two rivers of time separated by two millennia, each creating a course at their own individual speed across a series of shared galleries. The ancient and the contemporary—two surges of energy that crisscross, pull, interact and complement each other, generating a powerful tension and contrast, each attracting and resisting the other.”

These two complementary exhibitions are sights to behold, especially when seen together. Guo-Qiang has worked with the NGV on the curation of both exhibitions, transforming the gallery space into a spectacular immersive landscape where art is not confined to canvases: it hangs from the ceiling, it is splashed across walls, rises up from the floor and explodes in plumes of smoke (at least, it did when Cai Guo-Qiang set his gunpowder artwork alight for the premiere).

Over the years, the NGV has solidified its reputation as one of the most exciting galleries in the country, consistently pushing the meaning of what it means to exhibit art to the public—from full-scale architectural models erected in their back courtyard, to after-dark events, to civilisation-spanning exhibitions such as this one. A staple of any Melbourne itinerary, this winter a visit to Victoria’s premier art gallery is something not to be missed.