Cai Guo-Qiang’s Latest Mirage

Cai Guo-Qaing’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East opened on the fifth of this month. Titled ‘Saraab’ at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar, it is curated by Wassan al-Khudhairi and features more than 50 works, including 17 newly commissioned pieces, 30 recent works and 9 documentary videos. His biggest exhibition since ‘I Want To Believe’ at the Guggenheim Museum in 2008, ‘Saraab’ showcases Cai’s diverse body of work, ranging from his signature gunpowder drawings to large-scale site-specific installations. It highlights the little known connection between the Asian and Middle Eastern cultures which date back to the ancient Silk Road.

Cai explores historical iconography from both regions presented on paper, canvas and porcelain works. The art pieces echo botanical patterns seen in Islamic decorative art and manuscripts, reflecting on their ancient symbols and traditions. The gunpowder drawings provide a sense of tension between destruction and creation, an idea that carries significance for both cultures. A documentary about the making of the commissioned works, including process videos of the sketches and renderings accompanies the show. ‘Saraab’ continues Mathaf’s commitment to present Arab perspective on modern and contemporary art as it turns Eastward to consider dynamics across Asia for the first time.

Works on display explores the seafaring culture of the Arabian Gulf as well as the Islamic history of Guanzhou. In keeping with its title, Mirage in Arabic, ‘Saraab’ questions whether there is something illusory or unobtainable about the process of cultural, temporal and geographic translation. Wassan al Khudhairi said, “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.” Cai added, “For this exhibition, I was inspired by the ocean and the Arabian Gulf, which is a gateway to the rest of the world and which connects Qatar with my hometown, Guanzhou, China.”

The opening ceremony, the ‘Black Ceremony’, a progression of ten different scenes exploring themes of death and homecoming, exploded over a vast stretch of open land near Mathaf. The explosion event appeared like drops of ink splattered across the sky, instantaneously creating black blossoms, followed by thunderous noise. 8,300 shells embedded with computer microchips were ignited to form a black pyramid that stood above the earth, as if a wordless tombstone. ‘Black Ceremony’ took place near the museum and was open to the public. The video of ‘Black Ceremony’ is presented as part of the exhibition, alongside six other videos of previous explosion events.

Some other exhibits include ‘Endless’, ‘Fragile’, ‘Route’, ‘Ninety-Nine’, ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Al-Shaqab’. ‘Endless’ has three boats rock gently in contained water. Two are local Gulf-region vessels and the other a traditional fishing boat from Quanzhou. Their slight continuous swaying suggests an ambiguous state of possible travel or staying at rest. The three boats also allude to the historic maritime Silk Road that originated from Quanzhou. The room is enveloped in fog, creating the sense of distance. Together, they may suggest ways in which traditions and culture compare in different coastal regions of the world, or an individual state of mind.

‘Fragile’ is a 3 x 8 meter textured porcelain mural, marking the first time Cai has used gunpowder for calligraphy. Its title points to its physical properties – gunpowder exploded onto elaborately sculpted porcelain to form the Arabic word ‘hash’. This type of Dehua porcelain, manufactured near the artist’s hometown, was historically traded by sea to the Arab world, while gunpowder is a characteristically Chinese invention. The juxtaposition of gunpowder and porcelain suggests a fragility in human relationships, whether between individuals, nations or cultures.

‘Route’ uses gunpowder to draw a modern map in the format of ancient nautical charts. The rocks underneath, from outside Mathaf, render the surface smooth but uneven, an homage to the desert plains. With ink, the artist then adapts the destination coordinates, sailing time, and celestial navigation of the seventeenth-century Chinese map Haidao Zhinantu, ‘Seaway Compass Diagram’. Made to resemble a woodblock print describing the maritime Silk Road, ‘Route’ narrates the journey from Quanzhou to Doha.

‘Ninety-Nine’ features 99 small gold-leafed horses floating mid-air in front of a 4 x 8 meter gunpowder drawing. The illustration itself has Arabian horses galloping across the desert towards a searing sun. The number ninety-nine in Chinese culture symbolizes infinity, while in Muslim culture it recalls the ‘Ninety-Nine Names Of God’. The horse, too, is highly symbolic in distinct ways for both cultures. In this installation, some horses are drawn with gunpowder exploded onto the paper while others hang in front of them, galloping in space, and dappling the surface with shadows.

‘Homecoming’ is a series of granite rocks with Arabic inscriptions duplicated from historic Arab tombstones in Guanzhou, one of the messages being ‘whoever dies as a foreigner dies a martyr’. These rocks, specially selected from Guanzhou, wind their way from the museum’s courtyard into the atrium, symbolizing their homecoming. Incised with Arabic calligraphy before their arrival in Doha, they are installed along the visitors’ route into the museum. From these rocks, the artist creates a personal interpretation of the centuries-old Muslim community in Quanzhou. Arab ancestors who passed away in distant lands are welcomed home to the Arab Muslim world.

‘Al-Shaqab’ is a video installation imagined as an experience where all visitors may sit together in a traditional setting to consider how Arabian horses are viewed and valued as a cultural symbol. It explores ways in which different human cultures interact with animals. Shot on location at Al-Shaqab, Qatar, the film highlights how developing technology has advanced and changed horse breeding and husbandry.

Of his signature medium, Cai said, “The uncontrollability and spontaneity in gunpowder builds anxiety and expectation. I find this quality alluring, and the transformation of energy in gunpowder, the beauty and effect it creates cannot be replaced by other materials.”

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