Saraab: A Mirage?
Highet, Juliet, The Middle East
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 10 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 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'. An eyewitness 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 was a full sensory experience so hard to capture in photographs." However, Black Ceremony was videoed--the event being the opening of a spectacular exhibition titled Saraab, meaning "mirage" in Arabic at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha.
In the Upper Gallery at Mathaf, other videos and slide shows of examples of Cai's past work illustrate his creative process including experimental tests of gunpowder, fireworks and public 'performances' of explosion events. One of these was his Black Fireworks series, created in response to 9/11. Clearly, the man seems to be 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's 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 in Saraab, dating back to the ancient maritime Silk Route. It connects the multilayered history of Cai's hometown of Quanzhou to that of Qatar and the Arabian Gulf's seafaring culture. Since his youth, Cai 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.
More than 50 works have been installed throughout the Museum, of which 17 new commissions 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 or Mirage, Cai'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 reimagining Asian connections in this way, Saraab can help viewers to look beyond an 'East/West' relationship in contemporary art. …