Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang likes explosions; he likes to see how traditional mediums transform spontaneously before the spectator's careful gaze. In "Saraab," the artist's exhibition to be held at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha next month, Cai explores his personal connection to the Gulf through installation works and a series of gunpowder drawings in which he incorporates elements from Islamic miniature paintings, decorative art, and textiles, as well as ancient maritime routes between the Arab world and his hometown of Quanzhou, China. Mathaf's first single-artist exhibition since its opening in December 2010, "Saraab" features more than 50 works, including newly commissioned pieces and documentary material to highlight the artist's creative process. Cai's works are riveting in scale and execution. Their power lies with their ability to re-expose a seemingly forgotten past: the relationship between China and Arabia that dates back to the Silk Road.
"The Middle East is very mysterious for me," says the artist, who took part in the Talking Arts Program created by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in conjunction with the Emirati Expressions exhibition organized by TDIC in 2009. "Geographically speaking, the Gulf and the Middle East have always been part of Asia. I want to retrace these histories and show the rich and long cultural exchange between these two civilizations." Cai Guo-Qiang also hopes to probe the contemporary society of the region and discover what is real and what is illusionary. "Saraab" (Arabic for mirage) was chosen by Cai because parts of Doha have a mirage-like quality for him.
"There are still 60,000 Muslims living in Quanzhou," he explains. "Over the past few centuries they have left cemeteries with ancient Arabic inscriptions on the tombstones. As a child, I would pass by the cemeteries and wonder about what was written on them." For the exhibition, Cai has researched the tombstones's inscriptions and found that they recite three recurring verses from the Qur'an: ‘Everyone will have a taste of death; ‘All enjoyments in this life are illusionary' and ‘To die in a foreign land is to die a martyr.' He has inscribed these verses in a symbolic act on rocks he brought from Quanzhou for his work "Homecoming;" the stones serve as a visual act of closure for the deceased Arabs of his hometown.
Cai's works also engage the local populace of Doha. Hundreds of volunteers from the city were selected by Mathaf to assist the artist in the production of 10 large drawings and a porcelain mural made out of more than 480 panels. The volunteers came from a variety of age groups and professions; didn't have any art experience. What they shared was a desire to learn about Cai's artistic process.
"Saraab" presents a few firsts for Cai as well as for Doha. The exhibition is part of a series of cultural initiatives organized by the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) to promote local and international art. QMA will also present "Louise Bourgeois: Conscious and Unconscious," the late French-American artist's first solo exhibition in the region from January 20 to June 1, as well as "Murakami – Ego," an exhibition by renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami from February 9 to June 24. For Cai, "Saraab" marks the first time he installs a museum exhibition for 50 days straight. But what the artist desires to achieve goes beyond artistic form. "I am very impressed and moved by the Middle East. I don't want to merely show my past works from China, Japan, or the U.S. in Doha; I want my art to take root here and create a dialogue across culture."
"Saraab" is on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art from December 5 to May 26, 2012.