Sunday, April 1, 2012

When the Circus Comes to Town

Day 5 
Sunday, March 18

Writing Workshops at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

Sandstorm in Doha: the high rises of West Bay are barely visible from the corniche 

Realize: that a sandstorm sounds much more exciting than it is. Mostly it's just wind and small particles getting in your eyes. 
I had planned a workshop for Sunday as preparation for the Global Art Forum at Mathaf. We were going to talk about the relationship between art and culture at large: to films, public spectacles, and the world of commodities. But that day there was a sandstorm. 

Outside Mathaf. It was so windy that the tent set up for the Global Art Forum was unusable.  

The wind was very noisy and sand was creeping into in the museum, under the doors and through the windows.  

Sand finding its way under the doors of Mathaf

And through the cracks in the window in the workshop space we were using.

Because of the weather, only two of the participants came to the workshop that afternoon. Neither had seen the show yet, so we did a walk-through of the exhibition and then watched some of Cai Guo-Qiang's videos upstairs. 

Cai's Black Ceremony (2011), performed in Doha, on the left; the 2008 Beijing Olympic fireworks display on the right. 

We talked about the various differences between Black Ceremony and the Beijing Olympics display—whether they were both "art" and what we mean when say something is, or is not, art. I showed some pictures of Duchamp's readymades and stills from films made by artists. We had a good discussion but didn't do much writing that day. 

Then it was time for the Global Art Forum, which had by that time been relocated indoors to Mathaf's library because the sound of the wind in the tent was like standing inside a jet engine.

And so the circus came to town, even if the tent was unusable that evening. 

Shumon Basar, Global Art Forum director/impresario/ring-leader, with Wassan al-Khudhairi, Mathaf's chief curator and director, at the podium. Art-market reporter Georgina Adam is in the foreground checking her make-up.

Hans Ulrich Obrist talks with Shumon "Electric Socks" Basar and the novelist/artist Douglas Coupland. Georgina Adam, in the foreground, is checking her cell phone.

At the end of the session, since most people weren't able to make it (also because it was the first day of the working/school week), I decided to do a repeat of this session when I returned to Doha the following Saturday. — HG Masters

Saturday, March 31, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye

Day 4 
Saturday, March 17

Writing Workshops at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

Near Doha's Souq Waqif, with the Fanar Islamic Center marking the skyline.

Saturday afternoon we tackled another form of art-writing: the profile. This involves not only looking closely at an artist's work, but learning about his/her practice, as well as the artist him/herself. 

Mathaf's exhibition of Cai Guo-Qiang, "Saraab," includes video documentation of many of the pieces made for the show. First we looked at Route, Cai's map that re-creates the maritime Silk Road from East to West Asia. 

Installation view of Route (2011), Gunpowder on four sheets of paper, stones 400 x 1,200 cm (157 1/2 x 472 7/16 in.) overall, 400 x 300 cm (157 1/2 x 118 1/8 in) each sheet, Commissioned by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy of Cai Studio
Then we headed up to Mathaf's first floor to learn about how the work was created, and to learn more about the exhibition at large. 

the first floor at Mathaf, watching video documentation of "Saraab"

taking notes

workshop attendees watching a documentary about how "Saraab" came together

the making of Route in Doha, in October 2011

Then it came time to interview the artist. . . 

Cai Guo-Qiang, picture courtesy MFA Houston

In Cai's absence, we found a surrogate (though not quite doppelgänger) who was familiar with Cai's practice. We prepared three questions for the artist's double and he tried to answer them as best he could by channeling the spirit of Cai without the workshop becoming a seance. He may, or may not, have given some false information about Cai's future plans for an exhibition in Africa. . . Was I not supposed to leak that information yet? Oops. 

Apologies to Cai for any of the portrayals that don't quite sound like the man himself. . . apparently some of workshop attendees encountered the artist in very diverse places, including one of Amsterdam's more notorious neighborhoods, a beach in Japan, for coffee in Doha and the artist's studio in Quanzhou (Cai, you have a studio there too, right?). I told them to make their profiles interesting — and they did. 

As with pervious sessions, these profiles were built based on notes taken in the gallery, our "interview" with the artist, and then in response to 14 specific questions, which formed a kind of template for the profile. The questions are not included in the passages below. As before, I only corrected spelling and a few typos when I was compiling these profiles. Anything that I've added in is included in square brackets. 

Profiles of Cai Guo-Qiang (Man, Myth and (lots of) Legend)

During my stay in Doha, I met a very interesting individual, Cai Guo-Qiang. It was after a local performance where a mutual friend invited us both for coffee at his house where I got to have a conversation with this very unique individual.
            We discussed a piece of his art that was very interesting to me, Route which was the artist’s visualization of the silk route that was used for trade between our world and his, where he tried to capture the perilous journey between the Middle East and China. The big canvas portrayed the dangers of the journey and how if you deviate from the actual route you might encounter the massive waves.
            Through the artist’s decision to use the old maps and seeing how much it deviates from the real thing shows us the uncertainty that the navigators faced in their journey which also adds to the aspect of danger.
            The unique way in which the map was made is spectacular. Cai used gunpowder on paper to create this work where igniting the powder scorches the paper, leaving traces on the paper.
            When I asked about his interest in this part of the world, Cai mentioned how he enjoyed learning about the similarities between our cultures and the “histories we share” and our common ideologies.
            The “explosive” nature of Cai’s art makes it very difficult for his work to be successful. When I asked Cai about the complications that he faced, he replied, “most of my work is a failure,” and he talked about how hard it was to come up with artwork that is worth of display.
            I loved Cai’s work as he has a very interesting way in which he interprets culture. If I was to summarize Cai in a sentence, it would be “one of a kind.” I know that he will inspire new, upcoming artists to follow in his footsteps.

Cai Guo-Qiang sits on a sunken-in green chair in his studio in Quanzhou, China, with his hands immersed in a bucket of deep black gunpowder. When his wrists and then hands slowly emerge from the dark void they form tight, hard fists, clasped around a cluster of the fine, black particles. He seems almost entranced as thin streams of the substance escape through his fingers and fall down, creating small indentations and craters in the surface of the larger mass.
            Still staring into the black substance, he murmurs in a barely audible voice, causing me to lean closer to hear him fully: “I was raised in a collective environment, in a place where a person only had meaning because of his relationship of to others. Much like these fine particles of gunpowder, it was believed that power and force were achieved via communication and understanding with a larger mass.
            Although Cai grew up in Communist China — a place that honored collective action and sensibility, this modern conception has much older roots in Chinese history. Thoughout his works, Cai imagines a cultural memory, connecting himself to that prior time.
            For Route, a large-scale “gunpowder drawing,” Cai explores the tendrils of maritime connections between his hometown in China and the Middle East, particularly the Gulf region, easily accessible by boat via the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Arabia. The work is an “Imitation of a Nautical Chart,” traditionally a man-made map used for sea explorations. [. . .]
— Laura

I encountered Cai in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. The intriguing artist’s countenance reflects on the humble background he belonged to, but his thought and connection with art highlights his unique perspective on the notion of constructive community building capacity. His thoughts on spirituality attracted me the most. He finds connections between different curators, histories and religions through the medium of spirituality that resonates across them.
            Route is an attempt by Cai to detach from the contemporary political discourses about the Middle East and invoke harmony between the diverse continents based on the [   ] history they share. The process of creating Route involved gunpowder as the main constituent. The imagination employed by Cai, which comes in sync with the medium, it creates a miracle: art — as Cai would describe it.
            He transitioned from oil paints to gunpowder. It was a chance encounter that left him captivated. It resonates with immense significance, as while growing up he experienced how well-embedded gunpowder was in Chinese culture.
            Route was a project made in Doha, in collaboration with Mathaf. The use of stones to create the uneven look of the water currents enhances the overall feel of the project. The communist connections and influences make him humble, which is reflected through his work. Cai is known globally for his fireworks. His use of an unconventional material, to display his imagination that plays a constructive role in relaying his message and inspiration. “Every soul shall taste death.”
            [His works address the] casualties and bloody history that still haunts people due to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction in wartime. His observations led him to discovering the innovative use of gunpowder. He uses explosive material that has caused injuries to his students. It doesn’t seem like the man is content, his thirst and inquisitive mind is next taking him to Africa to explore social and political issues that might inspire him there.

In the Gulf state of Qatar, the “Saraab” exhibition by Cai Guo-Qiang occupies the entire Mathaf Museum in Doha. I meet the artist in the gallery housing his thematic work Route. Cai is calm and unassumingly explains the concept behind his piece with a group of curious onlookers. He serenly states, “Life is a journey . . . I am inspired by life.”
            Route is impressive in scale. It is a burn drawing on paper laid out over stones gathered from the grounds of the Doha museum Mathaf. The drawing itself is a depiction of a navigational map charting the route between Asia and the Middle East. Cai’s creation of Route follows the same method he has employed in the past using gunpowder and stencils. The gunpowder is ignited and the burn drawing is the result. Route was made shortly before the opening of “Saraab.” Like other site-specific works, Cai employed the help of the community, in this case Qatari youth in the creation of the piece. I find this particular work significant for its metaphorical treatment of historical facts. Route is not an actual map, but as the artist described it, an “Imitation of a Nautical Chart.” It aims to tell a story of the journey and connections not only made in history but in life.
            Although he studied set design in Shanghai, he truly found inspiration and influence after moving to Japan and being exposed to Western art and Japanese avant-garde artists. Cai Guo-Qiang is world renowned for his amazing and unique firework displays and gunpowder drawings exhibited in cities like New York and Tokyo. Cai’s art displays innovation in his use of materials, harnessing of fire and chaos to turn destructive forces into creative ones. This transforms him from just an artist to a true creator.
            When asked what kind of artwork he would create that represents his life, Cai responds, “Whatever I make will be like life itself, ephemeral.” The physical world becomes the beginnings of the spiritual world. Recurring themes which present themselves in Cai’s work include those of creation, destruction and death, as well as spirituality.

In Amsterdam, Holland, Cai Guo-Qiang is wearing a polka dot suit of yellow and blue, and is standing next to the Red Light district, about to sample the local delights. “Barney’s has improved the blue cheese,” he remarks.
            Cai’s Route uses Japanese paper, gunpowder flash marks, as well as local rocks. Using paint done in a calligraphic style he marked out the ships and countries and waves, using flash marks for emphasis. “It is a loud, dramatic process one that I like to share with the public,” he says. Route was made last year in Doha, as part of the Mathaf commission. The inclusion of European ships is significant.
            There is a 1,000-year-old mosque in Cai’s hometown [of Quanzhou]. As an exhibition-maker, he is known for his firework displays, and quite famous for his multi-media [works]. Amongst the action are subtle political and cultural observations. “It is a magical transformation of material from a solid state to a transient state.”
            [The big themes in Cai’s work] are political and cultural comments, interacting with the public, and connecting people. He embraces current concepts and ideas/trends to make art out of them. He has the best compositional awareness I have ever seen. Like the song says, “Things can only get better.”

Cai Guo-Qiang heroically stands on a large rusted rock at a sea in Japan. His hands rest delicately on his hips while his simple clothing gives him a modest appearance. He says, “Who ever dies as a foreigner dies as a martyr.” It immediately made me ponder on my understanding of death.
            [Route is] a large piece of artwork drawn upon four handmade papers illustrating the journey from Quanzhou to Doha. Route was created by placing gunpowder on the handmade papers with stencils to create the shapes, and he blew it up under coverings to discard any harmful situations. Cai believes that his use of gunpowder portrays the culture of his culture since it has significance from thousands of years, and it holds a metaphorical interpretation.
            Route was made in Qatar, commissioned by the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art to show the journey of China from Quanzhou to Doha. Route plays with a sense of perspective because the landscapes are shown from above, while the boats are seen from sideways. The piece of art was placed on the ground so that people can look down upon it. Route clearly shows that the artist knows his different kinds of gunpowder and its intensity. He learned about explosives because as a child he would play around with fireworks.
            Cai is famous for his explosive styles of art. He as commissioned to have a firework display at the Olympics in 2008. The contemporary world is going through a phase of artistic block because people do not know what to paint any more, and I think Cai is a great source of inspiration.
            In an overall manner, Cai said, “Death is a gate, and our present life is an illusion.” Cai experiments with the use of gunpowder in most of his artworks. There is always a narrative in each of his large-scale works. He knows that the only way he can have a sense of control with gunpowder is by using a stencil.
            After witnessing his range of styles, I think he grew as an artist always planned before doing an art piece. I realize that to make a good piece of art, you have to plan. Cai needs to decrease his use of gunpowder for art pieces because he is creating air pollution in our world. [In the future] Cai is seeking to create an exhibition in South Africa.

In Doha, Qatar, Cai Guo-Qiang has been encountered in the “More Than Meets the Eye,” workshop. He was providing a session of this artwork and writing. The most interesting this he said was that “he used gunpowder because it was invented in his hometown.”
            Route is an artwork made of stones, paper, gunpowder and paint. It shows the map of the journey of the artist from China to Qatar. It is a big piece on the floor. For this artwork, he used gunpowder explosions to paint on the map the route of his journey. He tried to find a way in modern Arab culture to make his work. He made his work in Doha with help from volunteers. Because the artist through this work provided a connection between China and the Arab world.
            The artist studied set design in 1970. He is famous for his firework displays in cities around the world. He is a good artist in taking the attention of viewers. “My message is to re-bridge the place where I came from and the place where I am.”
            The big theme of his artwork is life. His artworks are about life and human interaction. He is a creative artist that used a material that he likes to serve a purpose in his artworks. In his artworks, he is depending on the moving shows, which is really amazing. I think he will become more and more world renowned because everytime he knows how to attract the audience by his live shows.

I saw Cai at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. He was wear blue jeans with a white shirt. He was standing next to his artwork and showing what he does while making the artworks.
            Route is a big piece, it’s a handmade paper with gunpowder drawing. It shows the Chinese islands and the Arab countries, the paper lying across a rocky surface of stones. In the video, he was with a group of students. They had three big hard white papers on the ground, and Cai was drawing with gunpowder by his hand. Cai made Route in front of an audience and many people helped the artist. I love the sea and the ships. It attracted me and I loved the journey from Quanzhou to Doha with the Chinese handwriting and old ships.
            Cai studied set design at the Shanghai Drama Academy in the 1970s. He was always interested in fleeting and memories between countries. He designed firework displays in cities like Beijing, New York and Tokyo. Cai open my eyes in lots of things in life. His works were a lot of old and beautiful relationship between countries and their old history.
            The artist is a very educated man and he is very good in drawing with gunpowder. Cai is a very great man, and I think that he will have a big future and plans after the show in Mathaf. His drawings are full of deep relationships between cultures and history.

It was near the Education City in Qatar for the Black Ceremony opening. He was casually dressed, standing between an English and Arabic interpreter. “The present life is an illusion,” a quote he chose from Islam.
            Route is a relatively medium sized artwork that seemed to connect the Arab world and his hometown and Japan where resided. He used rocks from Doah as a base, paper made in Japan, to show the Silk Road journey over the seas. It shows ships from Asia, Europe and the Arab world, as well as constellations.  The map was painted with a calligraphy brush and strokes that is a Japanese style of writing. “I didn’t know where to start for artwork in Qatar. General views of the desert lands and city inspired me to create something that connects Doha to my homeland.”
            [His source of inspiration] was the use of fireworks in his childhood. Cai does experimental art and choreographed firework displays. It’s exciting, as the medium he chooses to use is not usual kind. “Death is a gate.”
            [His work addresses] history, culture, through the narratives in each of his artworks. Cai stays focused in front of an audience. He should continue his fireworks as a form of art. Projects in North Africa are in the making.

I met Cai during the opening of his exhibition “Saraab.” He looked relaxed and smiled at us. “My work is a connection of all my journeys and life is my source of inspiration,” Cai said. “It is my way to try to understand us human beings,” he concluded.
            We walked through the exhibition we passed by one of his works Route, made my four large pieces of handmade paper from China, where Cai draw a map with gunpowder. To create his piece of work, Cai used a stencil to place the gunpowder. He finalized his drawing with the explosion of gunpowder. “I use gunpowder because it is a material that has been used in China by generations. It is a link to my identity and connected to my journey as an artist,” he said with a smile.
            Cai created Route in October in Doha with the collaboration of 200 volunteers to explain the relationship between the two nations. In Route, every material used has a meaning and a reason to be there. A drawing depicting the Silk Road on a Chinese paper, drawn with Chinese gunpowder, placed on a bed of rocks from Doha, represents today a way to remember and to try to understand the relationship between nations.
            He started his career as a set designer at the Shanghai Drama Academy in the 1970s but he was always surrounded by art. His father was an artist and the opening of China to the West influenced Cai to become an artist. Cai is very well known internationally for his work with gunpowder as well as for his great installations with unusual materials. Cai’s work will take us through a journey where he will be raising questions and questioning our conception of what is or is not art.
            “I don’t intend to give a message with my works, but to question and to create curiosity,” he said. In his exhibition “Saraab,” Cai describes a journey between Chin and Qatar through history, myths, beliefs and disbeliefs. Cai is an artist able to work in the middle of noise surrounded by people and curious visitors. To plan his solo exhibition “Saraab,” Cai made a very inspired connection with the Arab world and in all his works he showed a deep knowledge of both cultures, the Chinese and the Arab.

I was really happy with these profiles, considering that we had to mix interpretation of the artwork with this ersatz encounter with the "artist," plus draw on background research about the exhibition itself. It's a lot of information to synthesize and then write about in just a three-hour workshop. Bravo to the whole gang. This was one of my favorite sessions. 

And Cai, I may have answered questions on your behalf in Doha pro bono, but in the future I'm happy to do that for a very reasonable hourly rate. Please get in touch if you need my services. 

Thanks to everyone who came the writing workshop on Saturday! — HG Masters

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Big Picture

Day 3

Writing Workshops at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha

Mathaf's lobby with portraits of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani, founder of Mathaf, and his wife, by Yan Pei Ming. The rocks are part of Cai Guo-Qiang's piece Homecoming.   

Thursday evening we got down to serious business at Mathaf: how to review an entire exhibition, and one, in this case, that fills the museum. This is not an easy thing. With so many works to consider, how do we start making generalizations about the whole without losing sight of the smaller moments of the exhibition? 

A review is like one of those digital photomosaics, where there's a big picture made up of thousands of tiny images (thanks Rashid Rana for making mid-1990s digital technology into mid-2000s contemporary art). Fortunately, there's a formula or structure underlying every good review—or any piece of writing, for that matter—so we were able to build up a "big picture" from lots of little pieces. 

But first we had to see the show and gather all the information we were going to need. So with a checklist of the major works and short questions about them, we looked intensely at every piece for 3-4 minutes, writing 1-2 sentences about them in his very rapid walkthrough of "Saraab." 

We started outside the museum, where the rocks of Homecoming spill out to the parking lotOne of the questions on our worksheet was: How many rocks are in the piece? I was surprised and then impressed to see everyone counting them individually — but then I spoiled the fun by pointing out that the number was listed on the wall label in the lobby. From then on, we paid more attention to the wall labels and to the exhibition guide as sources of information to supplement what we were seeing — and those helped inform the reviews, as you will see in the texts produced today. 

A range of reactions to Ninety-Nine Horses: from skeptical to quizzical and overwhelmed.

Ninety-Nine Horses, was a definite favorite of the group

I think we spent closer to 6 or 7 minutes with Ninety-Nine Horses

We also explored the first floor of the museum, where we looked at Cai's paintings (who knew Cai also made more traditional oil paintings?) as well as videos of his pyrotechnic displays.

Reading the wall label (yes!). 

In general, our workshop group was wowed by these past projects. 

Beanbag chairs in the gallery—good touch Mathaf. The black fireworks that Cai set off in Doha are seen in the background. 

After a break — following our rapid walk-through—we talked about our overall impressions of the show. To generalize, the response was positive but there was a consensus that some of the pieces were much better than others, and that at times the themes in the show (these connections between Arab and Chinese culture) felt repetitive. 

I really wanted everyone to write something like a whole review, but it's not easy to set down thoughts on a blank page in a short amount of time. And as I said, there's a hidden structure underneath most reviews that looks something like this: 
1. An engaging opening. 
2. Context and background about the artist and the exhibition. 
3. An over-all summary of the works in the show (are they new or old? what kind of media is used? what are the big themes?)
4. First impressions at the beginning of the show. 
5. A description and explanation of two (or more) examples of works that the reviewer likes or doesn't like.                       
6. A summarization or comparison of these works. 
7. What the reviewer learned or felt after seeing this exhibition. 
8. Thoughts that the reviewer has for the artist (or curator) about the show, and perhaps for future endeavors. 

So, to overcome the intimidation of starting out: we filled out another sheet, with 11 questions that fleshed out these topics in more detail. And then, we read our answers aloud, one answer at a time, going around the room, so that a kind of collective review emerged. 

Back at the hotel later, I typed up the responses to these 11 questions (omitting the questions themselves), and as you'll see below, they really do feel like mini-reviews of the show. I'm very happy about that, and impressed by what everyone had to say. In some cases I added the titles or missing works in square brackets; otherwise I haven't changed anything. 

Short reviews:

“Saraab,” Cai Guo-Qiang’s first solo exhibition in the Arab world, shows a great variety of work that will surprise you and question your way to see art. Cai is a contemporary artist from China, who lives in New York. The exhibition was commissioned by Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art in the city of Doha, Qatar. The artist explores the history between his hometown and Doha. In his works, he explored the mining, history and tradition of both cultures through the use of objects and materials from these cultures, trying to understand their relationship.
            The exhibition contains 10 main works. Cai surprises us with a variety of new and traditional media and styles. When you arrive at the exhibition, you are welcomed by 62 big sandstones, all engraved with different calligraphy. Fragile, a group of 680 tiles of flowers, is made out of porcelain manufactured near the artist’s hometown. The word hash, “fragile” in Arabic, has been written with an explosion of gunpowder. This could suggest the fragility in human relationships. Cai surprises us with Flying Together, where you can see the life[-like] models of a camel suspended in the room of a gallery together with falcons. They suggest a disbelief or the idea of [ . . . ].
            It is interesting the way Cai is able to approach the subject of his journey between two cultures using a variety of media and tradition as well as contemporary forms of art, and how he recreates the history and tradition of two dissimilar cultures.

Cai Guo-Qiang, the famous explosive artist, came to Qatar. Cai is a Chinese artist from Quanzhou, and made an exhibition entitled “Saraab” at the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf). The exhibition is about the ideas of history, present day and imaginary travels between Doha and Quanzhou. The show includes 12 works, old, new and in different media.
            When standing outside the museum, I could not access the entrance because of the large stones blocking the path. I really liked Endless, because of the story behind it. I disliked Miniature [Memories]; it has no meaning behind it, only shapes. Flying Together I liked because the artist made us think and because the work is hanging (a new way to install the work). It is very related to nature.
            [From the exhibition] I learned that art could be made by this explosion technique. [For his next exhibition] Cai could think about making more complex meaning to his artwork rather than simplicity.

Internationally renowned Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang presents his specially commissioned works at Mathaf in his first exhibition in the Gulf. The exhibition is significant for the artist because it is his first in the Arab region. Mostly it aims to educate and reinforce the long standing ties between China and the Gulf. The exhibition includes both smaller works and more importantly several large-scale installations. The commissioned works incorporate the use of gunpowder, as well as native materials to the Arab and Chinese regions, and new media, including the use of video.
            The size and scale of the installation [Homecoming] gave new meaning to the phrase “it leaves a big impression.” The piece Ninety-Nine Horses was by far my favorite for its use of mixed media and for its multi-dimensional aspect. The negative and positive spaces in the drawing added layers of visual interest. The suspended horse and their shadows impressed the importance of the horse culture for both the Arabic and Chinese people. There are many historical and cultural references within this particular piece, which tie together both peoples. However the reference to the number 99, as a number, creates associations with the mystical.
            I was not impressed by Route. I found it to be obvious and simplistic. Route doesn’t really say much except showing an obvious historical connection. Where Route falls short is in its attempt to show a complex connection between China and the Arab world, Ninety-Nine Horses literally soars and gives the audience a desire to see and learn more from the piece.
            The exhibition gave me more knowledge of the importance of cultural and personal connections historically and presently. [For his next exhibition] Cai should avoid falling into the pitfalls of becoming repetitive and simplistic.

Exploring explosions and the link between east and east, Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition “Saraab” (Mirage) was held at Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artist comes from Quanzhou, the start of the silk road. [The exhibition explored] the link between east and east (the silk road, tea, spices), using creativity in explosions. [The show] had mostly new work with some older pieces including older sculptures and new videos, like the daytime fireworks and gunpowder pictures.
            [My first impression outside the museum] was “not another one of these.” I loved the presentation of his firework displays, the creativity, effort of his mind to compose these dynamic pieces in real time really blew me away. One clip in particular was a line of fireworks exploding along a building’s glass facade. Unique, creative to the extreme and mind-blowing. Miniature [Memories] a creative way to show how women can be oppressed even by the outline of gunpowder masks on canvas, although I didn’t really like it.
            I learned that contrasting media can sometimes combine well. I really didn’t feel that much because I felt overall there not too much effort put into individual pieces. I learned that the artist has an extremely good sense of space composition and awareness. But that he doesn’t use it in every piece. He should try to play more to his strengths.

Extraordinary gunpowder art by Cai Guo-Qiang [is on view] in “Saraab.” A Chinese-born contemporary artist, Cai’s exhibition was organized by Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. [The show highlighted] the connection of Chinese traders to the Gulf and the silk trade to the Gulf. There were 12 major pieces, using a mix of fabrics, recycled paper, videos, resin and porcelain.
            [My first impression outside the museum was] “Where do these rocks come from and what do they mean?” I liked Black Ceremony, using a material known for destruction for expression. It felt like an expression of oneself using various kinds of materials. I didn’t like the camel and birds [Flying Together]. I also liked Fragile because [I realized] there are many ways to express what you want.
            There are some artworks you think you understand and there are some that just aren’t interesting enough to dissect. Humans are gifted in many more ways than you may think. I learned about the artist as a person. [For his next exhibition Cai should] surprise the world.

An outstanding range of artworks are exhibited in Mathaf, and embrace the personality of Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. Many hands helped him set up the show called “Saraab” and he invites everyone to indulge in his extraordinary works. The broad range of artworks identify his perspective of Qatar. He used gunpowder, fireworks, ink, oil paint and gold leaf in his works.
            At first, I expected nothing great, but by the end of it, I was bow down in awe to his magnificence. Describing an art piece in this writing would take away the excitement of you witnessing it for yourself. So, I won’t spoil the fun and definitely recommend you to visit it before June 2012.
            After seeing his work I got inspired and motivated to be as good as him in the furture. My only advice for Cai Guo-Qiang would be to never stop doing what he does best.

Art history is full of deep relationships. Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist. The show was organized by Mathaf and students. It is called “Saraab.” The exhibition was unique and it was the first time I attended. The artist showed the relationship between Doha and his hometown, as well as the old history of Qatar and China. The show included many works, in different media, new and old. The artist used all types of artworks, which is great to not let the viewer get bored.
            From the outside, the museum looks more like a school. I was feeling excited about what I will take from the exhibition. I like the nine figures that are wearing abayas [Memories]. I had a strong and deep feeling while looking at them. I felt that each and everyone had something to say and show. I liked the camel with the falcons [Flying Together]. To me, this artwork is showing our world and what is going on around us. The camel represents the Arab worlds and the falcons are those who are trying to harm us or are helping us. What attracted me is that the camel had no expression on its face. It did not have anything to do or say.
            I felt happy. I enjoyed each and every minute in the exhibition. I’ve learned a lot of things from Mr. HG Masters, one is how to describe the artworks [thanks Maha! (HGM)]. Insha’Allah everything goes great with Cai and he is going on the right path.

Cai Guo-Qiang is inspiring. He is a Chinese artist who is having a show at Mathaf called “Saraab.” The exhibition presents the relationship between the artist’s hometown in China and the Gulf. It informs the public about the other part of the history and gives the museum publicity. The exhibition includes so many beautiful works. The artworks include new and old works that are presented in video, painting, sculpture, etc.
            What an amazing entrance [Homecoming]! I liked Ninety-Nine Horses because it includes my favorite animal, which is the horse. It’s a very unique impression, talented and very creative to joint the painting with a subject that is not on the painting. The work is about running to freedom. I didn’t like Memories. From my point of view, it is meaningless and has no creation in it and I can’t get what the artist wanted to deliver. A piece of art should be complex and that’s how it will be attacked by the viewers. [The works says to me that that] “ghosts will get you!” Ninety-Nine Horses shows how I can be free by running forwards to my goal in life. The second one makes me feel silly if I one or two seconds to look at it.
            I feel inspiration from this exhibition. Cai, keep the gunpowder in your work and no more oil painting!

The use of new ways to express modern art has resulted in the artwork of Cai Guo-Qiang. In his exhibition called “Saraab,” he has shown his mastership in the use of fireworks in art, together with different materials. Cai is a Chinese artist who lives in New York. Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, has commissioned him to make some work for the show. He has also made a connection between the two big cultures, on one side the Arab world and on the other the Chinese. Through this exhibition the artist is trying to make a connection between the Arab and Chinese cultures, according to his own experience, knowledge and background. More than 10 artworks and pieces are included: oil paintings, gunpowder works on different material, three-dimensional artworks like the rocks [Homecoming], the boats [Endless] and the camel and the hawks [Flying Together].
            On arriving at the museum, you have the impression of looking at a procession of shadows walking toward the building [Homecoming]. The most impressive artwork Endless was a boat installation. Three boats of different sizes, anchored in a foggy shallow bay evoke peace and reflection. The artwork about the horses also imposes in you a feeling of grandeur and majesty because of its dimensions. It is very evocative and inviting.
            Walking through the exhibition you can be really moved and impressed or completely thrown off or uninterested.

the critics' corner

writing those reviews
I think I had just mentioned that I was going to post what they wrote on this blog — that's right, make it good

Joking around on our break — thanks for this picture, Heba!

I also got my portrait drawn, courtesy of Emelina. I'll come review your first show. 
Thanks to everyone who came to day three of the workshops. It's been great to see some of you on multiple evenings. It's fun talking to you all about the exhibition, what you like and what you don't, and I'm very happy with your reviews and comments about the show. You're very candid and thoughtful. Hope to see you again for the workshops Saturday and Sunday, and then for the Global Art Forum on Sunday and Monday. — HG Masters

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hot or Not (part 2)

Day 2 

After our tour of the wildlife activity at Mathaf, the whole group sat down to talk about what we mean when we say we "like" a work of art, what it means for something to be "beautiful," and how we tend to use the word "interesting" to describe things that we find artistically competent but somehow not to our liking. Like Lars Von Trier films—definitely "interesting."

Then we headed back to the galleries to look at two pieces from Cai Guo-Qiang's "Miniature" series, made here in Doha for the Mathaf exhibition. We spent about 15 mins looking and writing about two pieces, Memories, and Mosque, before everyone had to pick one that they preferred. Then everyone had one to two minutes to explain why they liked one piece more than the other. No one was shy about expression their preferences. Cai, your pieces met with some harsh words. "Boring" was tossed around very casually by one aspiring critic, whose name will be kept secret to protect her future career. They were like falcons, tearing your works apart, or defending them to the end.  

Making judgments about Memories (on the left) and Mosque (on the far wall). 

These folks liked Memories better:

pro-Memories team


For me the painting looks like a hidden trace, a forgotten memory in an old picture from 100 years ago. There are nine women reflected all standing in a row and watching the viewer, although they have no faces and no bodily limbs. The technique and the white and dark colors of the gunpowder make me think of old daguerreotypes or black-and-white movie screenings, which is also noticed in the white dots. It’s the haunting image of those nine women standing in a row with no facial expression that is very striking.

You return back to past days when you read the title of the artwork and you get involved with the nine people that stand up in front of you to tell them your memories, or they will tell you the memories that they have from the explosion time when the artist created the artwork. The nine people are wearing the same style of dress as the artist mentioned (the abaya), but they could be the dress from other countries or from China. And the scarves they wear have different ways of folding, and one of them is wearing a hat. The technique of the artwork is very unique and original with the use of gunpowder and the tone of shade in different depths. Something natural and earthy colors. So that’s why you feel it comes directly from deep places in the earth, and there are some motifs of lace and clothe.

I interpreted the piece Memories as a representation of the traditional identity of the Arab/Islamic people. The use of regional dress and materials like that abaya as well as lace in the creation of the burn drawings to me impregnated the work with its symbolism. The nine figures can be seen as a unified front, facing the world proudly, with strong ties to traditional values of the past. The “white abayas” bring together the male and female roles, marrying them in the delicacy and femininity of the lace and the strong resolve of the figures.

Nine people stand calmly in Memories, at Arabic Mathaf. The shady brown color of the gunpowder covers their faces. They are all wearing something like an abaya, but you cannot tell if they are men or women. It is a journey to the past with absolute vagueness that fires up your senses. You think, speculate, but never judge.

The artwork is wall-mounted with barrod painting. It is composed of three colors: white, light brown and grey. It is a single piece of nine large tiles. It represents the style of the scarf wearing in different periods of time. From the first look it is boring and noncreative to look at this work, but when you come closer you feel interested about the details that the artist made.

Memories, a nine canvas painting connected in a horizontal row, was created by sifting gunpowder onto stencils of abayas and lace. It rhythmically moved the viewer from the right to the end because of the breathtaking dark values of the powder. There was a certain sense of balance, since the abayas had similar sleeve placements and permitted no limit to control. It is an extraordinary piece of art that drives away from simplicity and embraces various interpretations.

The artist uses gunpowder to help his work send its messages. Sometimes this works, sometimes it can confuse. Memories is a piece that works, I feel. Nine figures dressed in abayas stare out at you. Clearly human figures but without faces or limbs. The gunpowder is deployed with discretion, suggesting (along with the faceless figures) a sense of fading memories. The piece made me think of a visitor with a fading collective image of his time here. Or else someone with a fading memory of intimate friends. He might forget the detail of their physical appearance, but not the essense of who they are.

I loved the artwork which had nine figures. Each and every one had something beyond. It is very creative. The traditional clothes, or abayas, were special to me. It attracts me in a sort of way. The artist had something to say and he showed it as nine people staring at us with no expression. It has no feeling but looking at it makes you want to think deeply. While the other work [Mosque] was unbalanced, it shows a church and a mosque together, but to me it’s not complete.

Here Mosque is getting a passionate defense and close examination. 

those who liked Mosque better

The painting is one piece that is located on the left side of the hall. It is made by explosion in the barood technique. It is composed of two geometrical shapes. The half-circle on the mid-shape represents a part of the mosque called quoba and the second part is the two columns, which represent incomplete manara. It is an original and unique work, and is difficult to find the same kind as it.

The “Miniature” series explores ways to work with the Islamic presence it was inspired by, in the gunpowder artwork. Memories uses traditional Arabic clothing as stencils to create haunting figures from the past, whereas Mosque uses artwork derived from Islamic pottery to frame the shadow of a mosque. Both artworks are ambiguous, although the composition of Memories is more structurally narrative and so is easier to understand than the abstract Mosque. However, the more ambiguous and confusing an artwork is, the more it is open to interpretation; it forces the viewer to [make] more poetic justifications of why the piece captures their interest. The dominant framework of Mosque suggests a myriad of explanations that belie the simplistic visual impact.

The artwork is a relatively small piece, shaped like a U, with a central part that for me looks like a stone fountain. It says that the art represents a mosque with two towers or minarets and a central dome. The bases of the work is made of different elements that look like flowers and leaves. Some other individual elements that can be identified look like bouquets, where the main flowers are sitting on both sides of the U. The piece appealed to me because it gives me a sense of protection and you can easily locate yourself in the center of it, enjoying the view.

Nine pieces of paper that combine nine pieces of empty clothes that represent different customs. This piece of art didn’t grab my attention because it’s easy to get and to copy it. I think it has no sense, no creativity and gives you what the artist wants to achieve. It would be much more useful if it was in a foreign country where they have no idea about this kind of clothing. Mosque is the one that I admire because it makes you think and wonder about the creativity of that piece. Also it has the logo of peace that makes your eyes calm when you are looking at it. Flowers represent the beauty and the mix of painting makes your mind think and discover lots of fantastic pieces. The reflection of the Mosque on the other side of the room leads you to believe that this piece of art is unique.

Thanks to everyone who came to the second day of writing workshops here at Mathaf. It was great to see some familiar faces from yesterday and I hope to see some of you again later in the week. — HG

Hot or Not

Writing Workshops at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha.

Day 2

Mathaf's exterior

What's This All About Then?
This afternoon we followed Yves Klein by leaping into the void—of interpretation. The first task was look closely at Cai Guo-Qiang's installation Flying Together, and try to sort out what is happening in this artwork. Is the suspended camel being attacked by two-dozen falcons (have you ever seen so many falcons at one time?) or are they holding the desert beast aloft? What do the animals represent? Why are the hanging from the ceiling? 

A dinner of the desert's best meat or an airlift evacuation? Cai Guo-Qiang's Flying Together here at Mathaf, Doha. 

Workshop Attendees' Reflections on Flying Together

There were 27 falcons flying around a camel. They are representing the Arab worlds. The camel looks neutral, it had no expression on its face. Looking at the art, some falcons are trying to eat the camel because their faces are aggressive and thirsty for blood but some look like they want to help the camel from falling. Maybe it means that every falcon is eating parts of the Arab countries, and the countries are not doing anything about it.
— Maha

The ambiguous spectacle of a camel enveloped by falcons suspended in the air evokes violent reactions. Are the falcons attacking the camels or helping it fly? The two symbols of Arabia are intertwined in a controversial embrace.
— Laura

It looks like the camel is falling down because the movement of the body reflects that. If the falcons would try to lift him up, they would use their claws instead of biting him. The image looks very aggressive me, because the falcons are biting and picking at the camel. The movement of the birds shows that they were waiting for prey. When the camel is falling down, they all attack him from different directions.
— Tessel

The camel in the artwork is sample of our Arab world and the attacking falcons are situation that is happening in Arab countries in different way. The camel is dying; at the same time the falcons get the chance to eat him. We can say about the artwork that it has “the smell of death.”
— Nawal

A premature camel that drifted away from its kind, and unfortunately witnessed an attack from falcons. There is no sense of the ground because the camel is tilted in mid-air, and has falcons furiously landing on its upper body. The exciting thrill of harm about to happen creates a sense of curiosity. The artist wants to relate his emotions by saying that he is the camel who is innocently being attacked, or not, by his audience.
— Emelina

I feel strongly that the hawks in this piece are a representation of salvation and therefore are there to help the camel. In my interpretation, the suspension of the camel and the position of its body looks as if he is being carried up to the sky or heaven. The birds all descending with mouths open seem to herald the impending death of the camels, as well as their arrival to help it pass onto the next world. The camel’s expression, for me, is one of peace and resignation to its fate. Its one eye peering out at us symbolizes our world, the one we see, while the hawk pecking at its eye is symbolic of the unseen.
— Bebe

The camel is flying to death. Falcons have no patience to wait for its landing. Congregated around its body, they try to hold it safe. Their beaks will do the job of their claws because the prey is too precious to be held by the claws. It is a sacred ceremony of death.
— Fatema

There are two actions occurring in the artwork. The close picture where you could see a group of falcons eating a small camel which is falling down from a high place. The second one is a wide picture in which four falcons are coming from far away to help in carrying the camel.
— Manal

The camel is under attack from starving falcons because all of them are flying towards the prey with open beaks. The camel is not trying to fight back because he knows that the falcons are all over his body. The prey is falling from a high place because its body is lying on its side.
— Heba

I cannot keep Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds out of my mind. Falcons hunt and kill living prey but not in flocks and not prey the size of camels! Perhaps the artist is suggesting that, with cooperation, they could.
— John

Falcons in this piece are working together towards eating the prey, by carrying it towards a safer place for them. The camel has no expression while the falcons look ferocious. The interaction is between falcon beaks and camel feet, except the one in the eye and camel.
— Pilar

Agonizing (and texting) over what to say about Flying Together

What to say, what to say. . .