WEST ASIA CONTEMPORARY ART
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art has strived to present an Arabic perspective on modern and contemporary art since its inauguration in 2010. “Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab” represents the “first time the museum has turned eastward to consider dynamics across Asia”.
In recent years, the tiny Middle Eastern state of Qatar has frequently come under the spotlight for high-profile art acquisitions and was even termed the “world’s biggest buyer in the art market” by The Art Newspaper in July 2011. The establishment of the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) in 2005 under the leadership of H.E. Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and the consecutive opening of the the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008 and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in 2010 is a testimony to their ambition of becoming a cultural hub of the West Asian region.
Mathaf seeks to shift perceptions and understanding of both Arab art and the larger context of modern and contemporary art from an Arab perspective, and ‘Saraab’ is a wonderful opportunity to show the world the potential of this idea.
“Saraab” (‘mirage’ in Arabic) features over fifty works, including seventeen newly commissioned pieces, thirty recent works and nine documentary videos on the making of “Saraab” and also previous works by Cai. Conceptually, the show investigates the little-known historic and humanistic relationships between the Arab world and China, dating back to the ancient maritime Silk Road. The works on view also explore the historic and contemporary iconography of the Arabian Gulf and its seafaring culture, as well as the Islamic history of Quanzhou, incorporating Islamic cultural symbols and decorative art forms.
In “Saraab”, Cai’s interest in global projects is further explored in a study of migration between Chinese and Arab communities. Playing on the term ‘mirage’ – an optical illusion that tricks an observer [into seeing] a distorted image – Cai challenges viewers to look past the seemingly apparent differences between China and the Arab world, and explore their historical and cultural intersections.
Sara Raza in ArtAsiaPacific
“Saraab” begins outside the museum with the new work Homecoming, an installation of 62 rocks from Quanzhou that winds its way into the museum’s atrium. Arabic inscriptions of verses from the Qur’an, copied from the tombstones of Quanzhou’s historic Arab community, were carved into each of rocks that visitors encounter one by one as they enter the museum. The journey of the rocks from Quanzhou to Doha symbolises a homecoming for Muslims that died in a distant land over the past millennium, offering consolation to this long awaited voyage home.
Black Ceremony is a progression of ten explosions exploring themes of death and homecoming executed over the open land outside Mathaf on 5 December 2011 as part of the exhibition opening.
Fragile is a three-by-eight metre mural made up of 480 delicately sculpted porcelain tiles resembling the kind historically exported to the Arab world from the artist’s home town. A burnt trail of gunpowder across tiles spells out the word ‘fragile’ in Arabic.
In Endless, two Qatari houri boats and a traditional Chinese fishing boat from Quanzhou rock gently in a pool of water inside a room enveloped in fog, creating the sense of travel and rest.
Flying Together is a mid-air installation of a lifelike camel and 27 falcons, the two icons of Arab culture.
Ninety-Nine Horses features 99 small gold-leafed horses floating mid-air in front of a four-by-eight metre gunpowder drawing, creating an illustration of Arabian horses galloping across the desert towards a searing sun.
In terms of execution, the show has been acclaimed for its social accessibility and engagement with the local community.
Hundreds of volunteers from the city were selected by Mathaf to assist the artist in the production of ten large drawings and a porcelain mural made out of more than 480 panels. The volunteers came from a variety of age groups and professions [and] didn’t have any art experience.
Cai said, “Through the collaboration and exchange with volunteers in making gunpowder drawings and by opening the creative process to the public, I will have the chance to work together with local artists, and discuss how to transform traditional mediums and cultural symbols into contemporary concepts and art forms.”
However, there has also been some scepticism about whether the spectacular appearance of the show outbalanced its conceptual aspects.
The extensive reference to history and ceremony – and the ambiguous relation to spectacle – of Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘Saraab’ serves to channel so many associations that the works become super-saturated with meaning, potentially leading to ennui. It is certainly possible to appreciate this show as both pure spectacle and as pure signification, but the power of the spectacle often makes it difficult to give the residue its due.
Edward Sanderson in Leap
Cai Quoqiang is a New York-based Chinese artist, internationally renowned for his signature “explosion art” or gunpowder drawing. After studying stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in the early 1980s, he then spent some years in Japan and later the United States where he was featured in high-profile international exhibitions including a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, culminating in his first retrospective “I Want to Believe” at the Guggenheim in 2008.
He was the curator of the China Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 and the Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
His more recent works include the solo show “Cai Guo-Qiang: Peasant Da Vincis”, as the inaugural exhibition of the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and Odyssey, a 42-panel gunpowder drawing created for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2010. “Saraab” is the artist’s first solo show in the Middle East and Mathaf’s first show of a single artist since its inauguration in 2010.
“Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab” was organised by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was curated by Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Director of the Mathaf. The exhibition will conclude on 26 May 2012.
- Contemporary Art in the Middle East – a first book survey – May 2011 – diverse art from seventeen countries in the Middle East and North Africa showcased
- Art Observed reports on Mathaf Arab art museum inauguration and preview – January 2011 – Does Mathaf’s very first show provide clues to its future direction?
- Most groundbreaking contemporary art from East? Three top art experts say no – December 2010 – counter-opinion on this big debate from art professionals Sarah Kent, Kenny Schachter and Richard Wentworth
- Cai Guo-Qiang’s largest gunpowder drawings to date at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston opened to public this October – October 2010 – more on Cai Quo-Qiang’s recent highlights
- Review round up – Saatchi Middle East art show Unveiled – which artists are critic favourites? – February 2009 – a comprehensive round up review on a ground-breaking Saatchi Middle East art show in London
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