East Meets Middle East

Installation view of 'Endless' Cai Guo-Qiang

The exhibition opened explosively—literally—over a vast stretch of open land in Qatar.

The ominously titled Black Ceremony exploded in a progressive series of ten scenes using over 8,300 black smoke shells embedded with computer microchips. The first looked as though drops of ink had been splattered across the sky, from which black flowers bloomed, followed by a thunderous noise. Then more smoke shells were ignited to form a black pyramid standing above the earth like a vast, silent tombstone. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ of this extraordinary large-scale event, was exploring themes of ‘Death’ and ‘Homecoming’.

Artist Cai Guong-Qiang

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang

An eye-witness described the dramatic atmosphere: “The build-up among the audience, the sounds and smells, and in the case of the ‘Fireball’ scene—the heat, then the slow dissipation of the smoke after each explosion—it was a full sensory experience so hard to capture in photographs.” The event was the opening of a spectacular exhibition titled Saraab, meaning mirage in Arabic at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, in Doha.

In the Upper Gallery at Mathaf, other videos and slideshows of examples of Guo-Qiang’s past work illustrate his creative process, including experiments with gunpowder, fireworks and public ‘performances’ of explosion events. One of these was his Black Fireworks series, created in response to 9/11. Guo-Qiang is clearly fired up by—as he puts it, “The uncontrollability and spontaneity of gunpowder building anxiety and expectation. I find this quality alluring and the transformation of energy, the beauty and effect it creates cannot be replaced by other materials.” Gunpowder was, of course, a Chinese invention.

So what is all this about in a time of such global volatility and with attention still riveted on the Arab Spring, with all its potent possibilities? The dual theme of ‘Homecoming’ in Black Ceremony indicates the exploration of the little-known but long-standing relationship between the Arab world and China, dating back to the ancient maritime Silk Route. It connects the multi-layered history of Guo-Qiang’s hometown of Quanzhou to that of Qatar and the Arabian Gulf’s seafaring culture. Since his youth, Guo-Qiang had been curious about the traces of Islamic influence in his hometown, including a rather grand Ashab mosque and cemeteries containing many Arabic-inscribed tombstones. Some of the earliest Muslim missionaries are buried in the city’s Holy Mausoleum.

Quanzhou was a significant maritime centre on the Silk Route, exporting not only silk, but spices, tea, porcelain and gunpowder westwards via the Arabian Gulf. In turn Arabian dhows took precious substances like frankincense to the East.

Rendering of 'Wreath' from Black Ceremony

More than 50 works have been installed throughout the Museum, of which 17 are new commissions. They explore the historic and contemporary iconography of the Gulf, as well as the Islamic heritage of Quanzhou. The remaining works are part of a mini retrospective on the upper floor. In keeping with its title, Saraab (Mirage), Guo-Qiang’s art addresses the ambiguity of Qatar and China’s affiliations with each other, questioning whether the process of cultural interaction is in fact illusory, unobtainable. Frankly, he said, “These works embody my contemplations on the relationship between the Middle East and the world, as well as my confusions.”

Saraab is a double first for both Mathaf and Cai Guo-Qiang. It is the first single-artist exhibition presented by the Museum since its opening in December 2010. Mathaf’s mission is to present an Arab perspective on modern art, and part of its commitment is to turn eastward towards Asia, exploring historic and contemporary links. As Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Director of Mathaf and Curator of Saraab, said, “It is the first time we have considered the dynamics of cultural exchange between our region and China. By re-imagining Asian connections in this way, Saraab can help viewers to look beyond an ‘East/West’ relationship in contemporary art.” In addition, he commented on the collaboration with Guo-Qiang, saying, “This show is a journey of personal and artistic discovery that demonstrates the emotional breadth of Cai’s work from the intimate to the spectacular.”

'Fragile' Cai Guong-Qiang

'Fragile' Cai Guo-Qiang

For Guo-Qiang, Saraab offered the opportunity to explore the complex web of conceptual and material connections between China and the Arab world. He said, “Although Qatar is one of the smallest nations in the region, it acts big and dares to take on ambitious projects. From the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and the World Cup in 2022, to the Qatar Museum Authority, and Mathaf in particular, Qatar repeatedly makes appearances on the world stage. It is exciting to be part of this larger context with Saraab.”

Qatar seems fast to be rivalling Abu Dhabi as a regional arts hub. As Qatar Museums Authority Chairperson Her Excellency Sheikh Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani stated, “Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is the first institution of its kind in our region and a major new centre for art and education throughout the world. Mathaf, and the entire Museums Authority, are expanding people’s ideas about art and culture in this region. With this exhibition by Cai Guo-Qiang, we open fascinating new territory for the artist and our audience to interact and engage in exciting new ways.”

Guo-Qiang is insistent on the importance of working with other artists and volunteers, including on the 17 new pieces commissioned by the Mathaf. “Through the collaboration and exchange with volunteers… and by opening the creative process to the public, I had the chance to work together with young artists, and discuss how to transform traditional mediums and cultural symbols into contemporary concepts and art forms.”

With over 50 works, ranging from drawings through a mini retrospective to large-scale installations (and the explosive opening event, Black Ceremony), Saraab is Guo-Qiang’s biggest exhibition since I Want to Believe at New York’s Guggenheim in 2008. He is a major international artist, crossing multi-media, exhibiting in premier venues globally and winning many awards, including the position of Director of Visual & Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Originally trained in stage design, he lived in Japan for nine years, simultaneously exploring the properties of gunpowder and Eastern philosophy. Although drawing on contemporary social issues as a conceptual basis, the evocative, gentle titles of some of his exhibitions demonstrate another duality. Consider Fallen Blossoms, Transient Rainbow and I Want to Believe.

'99 Horses' Cai Guo-Qiang

This same surrealist juxtaposition is apparent in the current works at Saraab, so many executed in the symbolically dangerous medium of gunpowder, yet suffused with tender poetry, as in his Fragile series, in which he has used gunpowder calligraphy applied to elaborately sculpted, infinitely delicate porcelain panels. The result is breathtakingly exquisite (and also vast). The 480 panels were made of Dehua porcelain by traditional craftspeople from near Quanzhou; they were historically traded by sea to the Arab world and beyond.

Saraab begins outside the museum with Homecoming: 62 large granite rocks selected at Quanzhou and installed along the visitor’s route into the museum’s atrium. Inscribed with Arabic calligraphy before their journey, the fragmentary inscriptions mirror those on historic Arab tombstones in Guong-Qiang’s hometown, enigmatic and evocative phrases: ‘The present life is but the joy of delusion,’ and in a more sombre mood, ‘Every soul shall taste of death.’

Guo-Qiang comments: “These cautionary words remain relevant today, whether in China, the Arab world—or perhaps across the entire world—as society becomes caught up in the relentless pursuit of materialism.” The journey of the rocks to Doha, and laying them out according to principles of feng shui, symbolise a homecoming for the souls of Arab ancestors who died in distant lands and are now offered solace and closure, as they are welcomed home.

Two machines—one for making gentle waves, the other for creating atmospheric fog—are used to create the high tech exhibit Endless. In contrast, three traditional wooden boats sway eternally in an extensive pool of water. One is a fishing boat used for countless centuries around Qanzhou; the other two are Gulf-region Houri vessels. Are they travelling, or are they at rest? Are they real or imaginary? A mirage? Such constantly intriguing ambiguity also sets the scene for Route, a vast gunpowder drawing on paper laid on stones collected from the desert plain of Qatar.

'Flying Together' Cai Guo-Qiang

In the style of a Chinese woodblock print, Guong-Qiang has augmented the gunpowder trail with ink to create a modern map using the format of a 17th century Chinese nautical chart of the maritime Silk Route, the Haidao Zhinantu or Seaway Compass Diagram.

For the Miniature Series, Guo-Qiang opened the creative process to the public. Eight panels were prepared of stencils inspired by Islamic miniature paintings and samples of the embroidered trim on Qatari women’s abayas, on which gunpowder was then ignited. Again we see the dichotomy of exquisite creation wreaked by destruction or de-construction of rich textile ornament and painted finesse.

99 Horses is a cosmic installation in which drawings of horses galloping across the desert towards a searing sun were exploded onto paper with gunpowder. Apparently galloping in space, small gold-leaf resin models of horses create lyrical floating shadows on the already-fluent backdrop. Horses have, of course, been hugely important in both cultures. The number ‘99’ in Chinese heritage symbolises infinity, while in Muslim terms it recalls the Ninety-Nine Names of God.

Shot on location at Al-Shaqab, the Emir of Qatar’s breeding and training facility for horses, the eponymously-named video installation at Saraab celebrates the value of Arabian horses in cultural identity, and also shows how developing equine technology has advanced horse breeding and husbandry. Viewers of Al-Shaqab sit in a recreation of a majlis, the traditional Arabian guest reception room, on cushions covered with Qatari sadu weaving.

Flying Together is a more-than-curious suspension of belief, in which two more icons of Arabian culture—falcons and a camel—fly together in the air (suspended from the ceiling). Falcons—yes—but a flying camel? Or are the falcons dragging the lone camel upwards attacking it, or are they helping it to escape? It’s all a fantastic mirage, just like Saraab.

Saraab at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar, ends on May 26th 2012.

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