Cai Guo-Qiang’s work straddles a sometimes-uncomfortable line between spectacle and meaning. The title of his blockbuster solo show at MATHAF in Doha, “Saraab”— which translates from the Arabic as “mirage”— as well as its “explosion event” in the desert nearby are a wholly appropriate allusion— officially, to the subject matter of the works, but unintentionally, perhaps, to the effect of the heavy symbolism that Cai employs.
The artist had been invited by MATHAF to create a new series of seven large-scale installations. Alongside these, a representative selection of older works provided an overview of the artist’s trajectory. The depth of material available in the show created a unique opportunity to fully appreciate the artist’s work, demonstrating in many ways that it has remained remarkably consistent over the years.
The new installations aimed to impress, including a large, fog-filled room where several traditional wooden Gulf boats loomed into view on an artificial lake; a large installation of stuffed falcons holding aloft a stuffed camel (or in the process of attacking it, depending on your interpretation); and several large-scale examples of the artist’s signature gunpowder drawings in interaction with various objects. These included the long piece Fragile (2011), presenting a departure from Cai’s usual use of paper to porcelain tile, here on which gunpowder had been ignited to form Arabic calligraphy.
The symbolic effect created by this quantity of large-scale work and their amassed meaning is at times too dense to appreciate, leading to a feeling of over-stimulation. In the latter example of Fragile, the intricate white porcelain— a product historically exported from the artist’s hometown of Quanzhou— had been delicately shaped into myriad, repeating flower forms, through which the sputtering ignitions had blasted their tracks.
Quanzhou sat at one end of the maritime Silk Road and as such played host to many peoples from the Arab region, to the extent that Cai Guo-Qiang remembers graveyards where one was as likely to find Arabic calligraphy as Chinese characters on gravestones. This is reanimated in a collection of large boulders that litters the entrance to the Museum. As the audience weave their way through the rocks that bridge the gap between outside and inside the building, carvings on the surfaces duplicate texts from the gravestones: “All that dwells upon the earth is perishing,” “Every soul shall taste death,” “Whoever dies as a foreigner, dies as a martyr.” These somber epitaphs suggest a feeling of displacement and homesickness embodied through the connections Cai makes between Chinese and Arabic cultures throughout this show.
Cai Guo-Qiang’s works are readily appreciable as the embodiment of profound and extensive meaning. They are also eminently reflective of their local conditions, performative in their relevance. Meanwhile, the bangs and flashes of his fireworks provide an instant sense of gratification for an “accessible” experience of the art. But it is an open question how effective for the audience the balance between these elements in Cai’s work is. This was most evident in the explosion event titled Black Ceremony. On the one hand, the precision of the formation explosions— forming rings, pyramids, rainbows, and leaf-like shapes— really did deny their ephemerality each time they appeared, hinting at transcendent meaning behind the quickly dispersing puffs of smoke. On the other hand, the whole affair was experienced prosaically much as one would a regular fireworks display, the audience counting down and reacting with “oohs” and “aahs” to each sequence.
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