Cai Guo-Qiang, Heritage (artist's impression), 2013, 99 life-sized replicas of various animals, water, sand. Courtesy the artist.

A natural minefield: Cai Guo-Qiang

Stradbroke Island is a natural paradise on the ocean side of Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. Most non-residents travel there as holiday-makers, driving their car off the barge at Dunwich and heading straight across to the sun and sea at Point Lookout and Amity Point on the other side of the island. The island’s pristine conditions and the cornucopia of wildlife – whales and dolphins, turtles, manta and sting rays, sharks, birds, snakes, goannas, and koalas – mean that absorption into the natural realm is not only possible but almost irresistible.

In 2012, I went to Stradbroke for the day and came back on the fast boat in the afternoon. The majority of other passengers were mine workers, distinctive in their high-visibility clothing, returning to the mainland after their day’s work. This is Stradbroke’s other face. The polarised support for and against sand mining, and the political interaction of this with the successful native title claim over the island by the Quandamooka people in 2011, was evident in the state election campaign during this period, in the wake of the Bligh government’s decision to create the Budjong Djara National Park, and phase out mining on Stradbroke Island by 2019. The importance of mining to the local economy was noted in the Bligh government’s decision, with an alternative economy, a tourism-led economic and cultural initiative to be run by the Quandamooka people, posed as a replacement. Mining company Sibelco fought for their interests in the 2012 campaign, resulting in the Newman government’s recent promise to extend the lease of the main mine, Enterprise, to 2035.

Quandamooka’s continuous occupation of North Stradbroke Island since white settlement saw their native title rights and interests formally recognised on 4 July 2011. It was the first native title determination to be granted in southern Queensland. Justice John Dowsett acknowledged that, “I am not giving you anything which you did not already possess,” but this recognition has allowed the Quandamooka people to become visible as ambassadors for the Indigenous experience on the island. Their stories and totems, their tools, their art and its imprint on Stradbroke, are increasingly shared with visitors.

Sand mining has taken place on Stradbroke Island since 1950, and utilises a small percentage of the island’s area[1] (although current leases allow for activity on up to one-third of the island). Sand mines are, by their nature, temporary – and earlier sites have been re-vegetated and returned to native forest as activity moves on. The area of the working mine is out of bounds to non-mine workers – adding to its mystique. Mining companies add significant value to Indigenous initiatives within associated communities at times. But on Stradbroke Island, Sibelco and the Quandamooka native title-holders are likely to contest this territory. Culture may add another layer – with its impact subtle, largely invisible to those outside the interested community, yet capable of significance that takes the issue into a larger sphere.

Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist with an international following. Known particularly for his work with explosives, he has worked on projects for two of the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennials.[2] His first proposed work, for APT2 in 1996 was under development in a gunpowder factory when an explosion saw Cai and senior gallery staff run for their lives. The second, in 1999, was also unable to be delivered. Yet Cai, who is committed to the element of risk that drives his practice, retains a strong relationship with QAGOMA. His work is the subject of this year’s major summer exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art, opening 23 November. It is his first solo exhibition in Australia, and sees him coming from a huge international program in 2013.

Amongst the new work for the GOMA exhibition is Heritage, an installation of life-size sculptures of exotic animals that crowd the edges of a pristine lake created in white sand to drink together from its waters. Inspired by a visit to Stradbroke Island where he saw the island’s freshwater lakes, Cai relates that Heritage is also informed by “The distance between Australia and rest of the continental world and how Australia is often thought of as the Last Paradise. I couldn’t help but think about what that means to our future. So, the work speaks to Australia but Australia is also where the work departs – it applies to the rest of the world as well.”[3]

While the beauty of the landscape is evident – the clarity of the water and the whiteness of its sand a vision of paradise – it strikes a poignant note. This disparate group of tigers, zebra, and other animals from all over the world is reliant on the same body of water. The image of peace is discomfited by the sense of uncertainty that hangs over a future reliant on a healthy environment. Cai’s work draws from a sense of present tension that Stradbroke’s visibly pristine assets generate. Part of the mining conflict is about its environmental impact on the heritage-listed wetlands on the island, yet in Heritage Cai refers to the interconnectedness of the earth’s environment and gives the term a broader significance. It is also possible to make allusion to the long term Indigenous occupation that has shaped Stradbroke Island physically, conceptually and culturally (although this may not be intended).

Marty Smith, Dredge (left) & Settling Pond (right), 2012, photographic print with archival ink on museum rag paper. Courtesy the artist. 

Photographer Marty Smith has also recorded and celebrated Stradbroke Island, informed by his local knowledge. Rare images of the working mine sit alongside the picturesque tradition evoked in Cai’s imagery. Smith captures dramatic sand-scapes – with dredges, trucks and industrial sights in otherwise deserted areas appearing like archaeological relics, resonating with the industrial beauty created by machinery. Uncanny green man-made pools of water, dramatic furrows in the sand, and the scale of the natural environment over machines, mark these as temporary inhabitants in a natural paradise. The dunes move and follow their own natural course over time, disregarding external influences, and consume all in their path.

Mining, and the engineering works it requires, has visual drama and impact but is ultimately subject to the natural environment. While for Cai, Stradbroke was inspirational toward a visual motif that mimics the island’s pristine heart, in Heritage he has also understood the lineage and complexity in its unfolding history. Culture does not necessarily provide clarity, but contributes an intellectual, emotional, spiritual, discourse that is subtle but strangely powerful.


  1. ^ Three or four per cent of the island is currently subject to sand mining.
  2. ^ Cai Guo-Qiang has a long relationship with the Queensland Art Gallery in both the second (1996) and third (1999) Asia-Pacific Triennials. Yet neither project was delivered as planned. On the subject of risk he related to the author (30 May 2013): “The charm of art comes from the relationship between artists and the unseen world. The charm for viewers also consists of two different things. The first is fate. And then there is also how viewers may reflect on life and society and see the similarities between the two. Every single time we create ignition I am very wary. I’m entirely reliant on the unseen artist that is behind me. And the audience can feel the same way, but as soon as they witness the magical moment they too are thrilled.”
  3. ^ Cai has also made a significant installation directly inspired by mining. Cai Guo-Qiang: 1040M Underground (2011) takes people into work developed after a visit to a salt mine in the Ukraine. It mimics the process of working underground and recreates imagery of the people that undertake this work in a similarly heroic way.

Louise Martin-Chew has written about the visual arts since the early 1990s and is a frequent contributor to art magazines, catalogue essays and books. She has been a regular visitor to Stradbroke Island since the late 1960s.

Marty Smith: