This year, residents and visitors of Qatar will be treated to a rich programme of exhibitions and events to mark Qatar China 2016 Year of Culture, which celebrates the relations between the State of Qatar and the People’s Republic of China through cultural partnerships between Qatari and Chinese organisations, institutions and individuals. The first world-class exhibition marking this celebration is What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China, opening at QM Gallery Al Riwaq this month. FACT talks to curator, and internationally-acclaimed Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang to learn more about this fascinating showcase, as well as his own journey into art…

Hi Cai! Tell us more about What About The Art? and what visitors to the exhibition can expect to see? What About the Art?

Contemporary Art from China is an exhibition that I spent near three years researching and curating. It will open on March 14 at Qatar Museums’ 3,500sqm Gallery Al Riwaq, and will feature works by 15 living artists and artist collectives born in Mainland China, including: Jenova Chen, Hu Xiangqian, Hu Zhijun, Huang Yong Ping, Li Liao, Liang Shaoji, Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong, Jennifer Wen Ma, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Wang Jianwei, Xu Bing, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, and Zhou Chunya.The exhibition examines the issue of creativity. Recent critical reception of contemporary Chinese art has focused largely on sociopolitical issues and record market prices.

In response to the lack of detailed consideration given to contemporary Chinese artists’ artistic value and originality, the exhibition confronts the contemporary art world with the question: What about the art itself? Visitors will be able to view each of the artists’ body of work, across the media of painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance, and interactive video game design – presented in an independent gallery space. There will also be a gallery Timeline, which displays archival documents of contemporary Chinese art from 1949 to present. This gallery will provide visitors with a rare glimpse into the historical and cultural development of contemporary Chinese art by revealing its parallel and conflicting relationship with mainstream Chinese culture.

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What is it about contemporary art that grips you?

Growing up watching my father paint, I understood that while traditional painting and calligraphy left us with abundant heritage, it could at the same time restrain us. The reality in our contemporary world is constantly changing; our societies filled with conflicts. We cannot linger in ancient methodologies and sentiments; instead, we must respond to our realities today, directly, while inventing a new language to do so. This is what I think is the significance of contemporary art.Of course, many themes relevant today are ancient and timeless, yet we still need to ask questions from today’s perspective. We need to absorb nutrients from our multitudes of diverse realities, dialogue with different cultures, and create a new artistic language to participate in this dialogue.

Why is it important to showcase contemporary Chinese culture and society to a wider audience – and is there a message you’d like to convey through this exhibition?

Honestly speaking, I’m not sure it is my agenda to showcase the big picture of contemporary Chinese culture and society. In fact, the world has been paying attention to contemporary Chinese art for quite a while, but often from the perspective of the cultural context or sociopolitical issues the art presents, or by its record auction results. What I hope to call attention to in this exhibition is something more fundamental: the artists’ individual pursuit of methodologies and artistic language.

Of course, I’m not saying that contemporary Chinese artists should not discuss their cultural backgrounds, politics and responsibilities for the society. I want to shift the attention of the art world – both in and out of China – to a different angle. Art can discuss, and should pay attention to, politics. Take Freedom by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, for example. The piece alludes to the Chinese sociopolitical background that most people can understand and also expect Chinese artists to speak up about: it represents Chinese people’s desire for freedom.

However, many artists are concerned about this issue; why did I choose to exhibit this piece in particular? Because as an artist, you ultimately need to express yourself using the language of art. Putting the issue out there alone is not enough.

Art has been used for political purposes in many societies; a few decades ago, art was used as a catalyst for social reform. However, the Soviet Union disintegrated and we don’t remember many artists from that era. Similarly, if our art is to respond to the reality of today, without an innovative methodology, however responsive it may be, it will be forgotten by history. That’s why I titled the exhibition What About the Art?

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What is your preferred medium of art and why?

If I didn’t answer gunpowder, you might think I’m avoiding the question! In fact, gunpowder is the medium that I engage with, most. Because of its unpredictability and uncontrollably, it connects us to the cosmos, nature, the unseen world, and the transient quality of human life. It is a captivating material, and as I get older, I’m gaining more understanding of this material.

What messages or perceptions do you hope that visitors will take from this exhibition?

The main focus of the exhibition will be on the artworks and the creative endeavors behind each artwork. As the curator, I hope that this is an exhibition that asks questions. The exhibition doesn’t make a statement that contemporary Chinese art is innovative or has artistic merit, but rather it raises an issue: it is necessary for us to discuss individual artist’s creative practice. I hope that addressing this topic in Doha will provide inspiration to, and find resonance with, young Arab artists seeking the creative means to address the relationship of Islamic culture to the rest of the world.

Moreover, the big contemporary exhibitions and biennials often focus on popular controversies: the environment, refugees, terrorism, the cultural identity of the artist, and other textual and contextual analyses outside of the works themselves, with insufficient attention to artists and art practice in themselves. Therefore, the question raised by our exhibition is also for the contemporary art world in general.

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As an artist, who or what inspires you to continue producing art?

Myself. It is from myself that endless desire to create, to perform, to answer, and to reflect on life and society is generated. All of these artistic productivities happen because I have the desire.

What do you think of Qatar’s arts scene?

From my understanding, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa’s vision is to bring the best and most energetic artists in our time to Qatar, to dialogue with this country’s culture. Again, from my perspective, Her Excellency’s goal would be to help Qatar’s art and culture reflect on its own heritage while actively looking outward into the world and starting to participate on a global stage one step at a time.

This is the reason why Qatar has in recent years become a point of attention for the rest of the world. What seems more important to me is that the momentum is not generated by the hustle and bustle of commercial art fairs, but a series of exhibitions, cultural exchange programmes and symposia planned one after another, with the intention to initiate a meaningful, indepth, and sustainable conversation with the rest of the world.

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When you’re working on a piece, how do you know when to stop and when it is finished?

This is a great question. In fact, it is often the hardest thing for an artist to know the most ideal point to stop. And the ability to know this most ideal point is often not acquired by experience, but a gift. Once – while still living in Japan – I built a bamboo bridge from a kindergarten, crossing the wall and arriving at Aoyoma Cemetery on the other side. Curator Jan Hoet kept reminding me that he thought the bridge was too perfect, overdone, and as a result did not look like an artwork any more.

But when Jan came to inspect the bridge after it was completed, he walked on the unstable structure and felt very nervous. I had to give him a hand in the end while reassuring him that the bridge wouldn’t collapse. After he crossed the bridge, he padded me on the shoulder and said “good, good good.” To him, the sense of fear and uncertainty when crossing the bridge revealed the tension in the work.

Otherwise, a pretty bridge would be too stiff and uninteresting. This example is to show that artworks cannot stop at a point of total perfection; it needs to leave room for the feeling of unsettledness to be generated.

The Sky Ladder that you created last year went viral – tell us more about the work behind it – and how did it make you feel to get such a positive, global reaction?

I have had the idea of creating a ladder to the sky since the late nineties, a ladder that allows me to have an eternal dialogue with the universe. When I finally realised Sky Ladder on Huiyu Island in my hometown Quanzhou last year, it was offered as a gift for my 100-year-old grandmother, my parents and family, and my hometown.

We did not obtain official permit, and so were not able to invite an audience beyond my family and the few dozens of residents on the island. However, a cell phone video leaked onto the internet and allowed tens of millions of people to see it! This introduced me to the world of social media, and how vast and powerful it is. It also made me realise that the key to the audience is grounded in the artwork’s innate power: whether the work can connect to and move people. To light up people’s imagination of soaring into the sky, an artist’s emotional gift for his 100-year-old grandma – it was these basic human desires and sentiments that touched the viewers.

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GO: What About The Art? Contemporary Art From China will be on display at QM Gallery Al Riwaq from March 14 to July 16. Visit www.yearsofculture.qa for more information.