Detonating Dialogue: Cai Guo-Qiang's First Middle Eastern Exhibition Gently Bridges Arab and Chinese Culture at Mathaf

Cai Guo-Qiang's "Black Ceremony - Rainbow" (2011) took place outside Mathaf: Arab Museum of Art on Dec. 5, 2011
(Courtesy Cai Studio / Photo by Lin Yi )

The Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art opened a year ago to shed a long-awaited spotlight on Arab contemporary creation. Piloted by Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the daughter of Doha's emir, the institution has now given its first-ever solo show to Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, from whom the museum has commissioned 17 new works to augment its mini-retrospective.

A daring choice? "What's great about this show is that we really get a fresh perspective from one point of view, of the Arab world through Cai's eyes — historically, but also as an imagined journey," said Mathaf director Wassan al Khudhairi during a tour of the exhibition on Wednesday.

The strength of the exhibition, titled "Saraab" after the Arab word for "mirage," resides in Cai decision to stay clear of declarations and instead forge links — both literal and atmospheric — between Doha and his hometown of Quanzhou. Between the artist’s spectrally spectacular explosions in the desert, installations of boats rocking on the waves of a foggy sea, and cast of falcons attacking — or perhaps gently carrying — a camel, the overall impression and tone of the exhibition is far more delicate than the sum of its most striking parts.

"Saraab" opened on December 5 with a familiar bang on a deserted field near Mathaf, where a few hundred onlookers gathered to admire 10 explosions and the eerily ink-like blotches they left behind — at one point with a black pyramid appearing in the sky. Cai has made a trademark of gunpowder, and, far from the artist's monumental Beijing Olympics fireworks, the Doha performance, titled “Black Ceremony,” became part of his more sober and measured "Black" series. The blasts are reprised on video on the upper levels of Mathaf and the trend runs through the exhibition, which mostly eschews vivid colors in favor of nuances of tan and brown. An obvious reference to the desert, these hues also evoke a haze, seeming to wrap Arab icons ("99 Horses") or a 17th-century nautical chart hinting at the Maritime Silk Road ("Route") in suspended time and space.

That effect is fully explored in a foggy room where a traditional Chinese fishing boat and two Qatari "houri" boats, borrowed from the National Museum, rock in the fake waves of a green water pool, relaxed and — despite the inherent travel theme — going nowhere. That installation is called "Endless" and very appropriately sits in the middle of studies of past and present.

Outside and inside the entrance to the museum, Cai has placed 62 large rocks, brought from Quanzhou and inscribed with Arabic lines from the Qur'an — "All enjoyments in this life are illusionary" or "To die in a foreign land is to die a martyr" — that the artist appropriated from the tombstones of Arab émigrés in Guangzhou. Reviving the old trade paths that sent Chinese porcelain Westward and Arab spices Eastward, the artist also has an imposing tableau of 480 panels of Chinese-made porcelain inscribed with the Arab character for "Fragile" — written in the locally-applied gunpowder script that adorns most of his works at Mathaf.

Cai gathered some 200 volunteers to help him create the new works — with scores of schoolchildren gawking at the explosive black powder — before spending some 50 days installing the show, his longest-ever stretch. Local artists will soon be invited to react to the exhibition. "The way he works is very much in line with how Mathaf wants to present exhibitions, to create connections with the community and getting them engaged with a transparent process," said Wassan al Khudhairi. "There is much more ownership of the final result."

This sense of ownership is reinforced by Cai's commitment to thinking locally: he sourced fabrics from Doha's souks to create the ghostly stencils of "Memories," and sought inspiration in Arab miniature paintings and the illumination and ornaments that are traditionally placed around script. For the new video work "Al Shaqab," the artist filmed the daily goings-on of the Emir's prestigious horse breeding facility, from semen tapping and analysis to mane trimming and trot training.

The most cryptic new work at Mathaf is also one of the most visually arresting. "Flying Together" suggests that the life-sized replica of a camel (in styrofoam, resin, and sheep hide) is being benignly carried by the 27 fake falcons — though their rapacious expressions could hint otherwise. In his take on two of the Arab world's most important symbols, Cai leaves everything open, down to the nature of the question asked.

Among the older works upstairs, the artist has elected to show a handful of oil-on-canvas paintings, a medium omitted from his 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim. Cai usually shies away from showing those works, the curators noted, but he was happy to make an exception in a part of the world where venerable art is still synonymous with painting. The paintings, the most colorful of the show, depict Cai's own memories of his explosion events.

Though willfully ambiguous, "Saraab" follows through on its conception of forging a bond between China and the Arab world, through shared feeling and whispered dialogue. Cai is a shrewd observer, seeing Doha as an ever-moldable, unfinished mirage, drawing on a cultural heritage that spans wide but remains intriguingly out of focus. The very tied-together and subtly coherent show could then become a headache for Mathaf when the museum must choose which works it will want to add to its permanent collection, now some 6,300 pieces strong. Nothing has been decided yet, said Wassan al Khudhairi.