Cai Guo-Qiang is best known for the explosions that he began to make whilst living in Japan in the late 1980s. For the last decade or so, he has been the go-to guy for museums hungry for heavy-duty spectacle. The recipient of the first solo show presented at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, a year after the institution was inaugurated, this is Cai’s first exhibition in the Middle East, and it comes not long after his 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York.
Taking as a starting point the artist’s hometown of Quanzhou in Fujian Province, China, the show is a meditation on the historic trade routes between Quanzhou and the Middle East, not to mention a rather literal rumination on the nature of mortality and travel. Cai has lived in New York since 1995, and he describes this exhibition as a homecoming of sorts, a return to the town he left in 1986 for Japan. For example, a phalanx of rocks – quarried from Quanzhou and inscribed with the Arabic phrases he remembers seeing as a boy in the many Muslim cemeteries in his hometown – have been transported to the courtyard and atrium of Mathaf’s still-temporary home on the outskirts of Doha. Spread across the whole of the museum’s two floors, the show comprises more than 50 works, including 17 new commissions made for the exhibition and several large-scale gunpowder drawings. The latter, which are produced by igniting trails of gunpowder on paper or porcelain, were made with the help of local volunteers and students.
The first room sketches out the theme of journeying, nodding to a work Cai presented at the 46th Venice Biennale, Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot (1995), a wooden fishing-boat from Quanzhou that was loaded with local herbs and traditional Chinese medicines. This iteration, titled Endless (2011), expands the work to comprise both a boat and two local dows, bobbing somewhat melodramatically in a water tank installed in a smoke-filled room. Further on, a large-scale gunpowder drawing of the Silk Route map (Route, 2011), is installed on the floor along with further gunpowder pieces tracing the silhouettes of local dresses, while the ‘Miniature’ series (2011) comprises floral prints made from gunpowder on intricately crafted porcelain tiles.
Upstairs is documentation of the making of the work, alongside sketches and renderings of so-far unrealized projects – in some cases, like the renderings of Cai’s proposal for a vast submarine to be stranded in the Qatari desert, this is probably for the best. A greatest-hits-style room of videos of the explosion pieces includes the opening and closing fireworks displays for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, pieces from Cai’s collaboration with Issey Miyake and a slideshow of his career so far. The opening celebrations for the exhibition were rounded off by a ten-minute daytime explosion piece, Black Ceremony (2011), which was staged close by Mathaf. Cai’s largest explosion project to date, it utilized smoke canisters programmed by the team behind the Independence Day fireworks in New York. The work was ostentatious, childish and impressive all at once, but I’d forgotten it almost as soon as the smoke cleared.
The exhibition title, ‘Saraab’ (the Arabic word for mirage), alluded to the fleetingness of these displays, though it could equally applied to the West’s continuing suspicion regarding the Gulf’s cultural boom. Though projects in Abu Dhabi may be faltering, in Doha this recent flourishing includes the beautiful I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, Arata Isozaki’s Qatar National Convention Centre and Jean Nouvel’s under-construction National Museum of Qatar. However, with recent projects in Doha having included presentations by Richard Serra and Takashi Murakami, one danger of such endeavours is that they emphasize the monumental at the expense of anything else. Another is that institutions in the Gulf become little more than the Middle Eastern leg of world tours for artists who have already received validation from Western institutions. Here’s hoping that, at Mathaf, there will be more than just fireworks.