Richard Serra’s towering planes of steel measure time and space on a human scale in the scorching sands of Qatar
Lined up in quietude, gesturing between one horizon and another, four towering steel planks mark out a mile in the landscape of Ras Brouq nature reserve, 60 km west of Doha. The new installation, conceived for the location, is classic Richard Serra – brutal, industrial, elegant, moving, and unrepentantly modern – as it waits night and day under desert skies for visitors to come and awaken its meaning. Named East-West/West-East, the sequence marks a neat axis in a disorientating landscape. In Serra’s own words, “It not only describes your body as you move through the desert but measures your relation to the land and gives a direction in a non-directional space.”
“When I was out there doing my piece, no one ever walked through that pass, no one even drove a car through”
When initially invited by Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 2009 to install in the desert, Serra recalls, “I had no desire to do that”. After several visits with an archeological guide, he was repeatedly drawn to a particular spot. When he told H.H. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani about the location he finally settled upon, the Father Emir was touched, as it was a place his uncles had often taken him as a boy, where antelope used to gather. “I could see in his eyes that he was moved. He saw that I recognised a particular aura and significance here.” It took Serra two years to consider the site and decide that his intervention would be to mark an axis there. The artist compared the commission to meeting leading Renaissance patrons the Medicis in the 15th century, commenting on the rarity of such an opportunity, and acknowledging with gratitude how unusual it is to be allowed to install within a nature reserve.
“In my country, art comes after football and entertainment.” The 74-year-old American, born in San Francisco, educated at Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Yale, is adamant that his sculpture remains about the medium itself, as opposed to representing something else – including his country. “When I was invited to make a piece in Washington with architect Robert Venturi they asked what I thought of Venturi’s proposal to put flags on these pylons and my response was, ‘I don’t care if it’s an American flag or a German swastika, I’m not interested in art as patriotism – my sculpture is not a patriotic gesture’.” The seriousness of his project, to investigate sculpture itself and how it influences its environment, can be felt around the works, through their materiality and minimalism.
Serra’s fervent anti-ornamentalism is evident in the industrial character of his sculpture and it was no surprise to hear him say in Doha, “Most public art is terrible and it gives sculpture a bad name. I’m not into sculpture that is ornamental, that you pass by while listening to music in the car, as you would a house or an advertisement. That’s for Las Vegas and it’s boring. I am interested in the walking and the looking, and particularly in the time it takes to walk and look. The duration and the physical relation this journey has to one’s own sensibility.”
Despite dwarfing the human form, the four planes of East-West/West-East function as measuring sticks that give the body reference points within the epic scale of the desert.
They bring out the inconsequential size of a person when set in the grand frame of Mother Nature, and give each individual a way of contextualising themselves within the anonymising desert, a landscape renowned to act as a mirror for the self. Evoking four giant sundials from some ancient civilisation, the pillars communicate time as you move past each one. “Anyone who walks that mile and walks the mile back – whether or not they think it’s art or not – will have a different experience of time”. The time he means is relative to the self, like an interior rhythm: “I’m not talking about time on the clock, but the subjective time that is the duration in which you deal with yourself in the solitary experience of being a speck of sand”.
The East-West/West-East planes feel permanent as they stand overseeing the vulnerable human bodies that pass in the scorching sun. This same materiality also changes how space is felt in that part of the desert, as the rigid monoliths throw contrast onto soft human forms and the crumbly gypsum earth. The sculptor told us how it “contracts the space” of the desert, meaning that it shrinks it to make it more conceivable by providing reference points. This capability to re-formulate space made Serra the first artist, as opposed to architect, to receive the prestigious President’s Medal from the Architectural League of New York in April. Over the years, Serra’s metalwork sculptures, in lead or in steel, have taken different
As all serious artists engaged with the progression of art through history and its responsibility to pertain to the now, Serra is conscious of his role in the evolution of sculpture. “You’re just a stone in the wall, from the beginning of time through the Renaissance and the 19th and 20th centuries, and you’re trying to extend the syntax of what sculpture can be.”
“I’m not talking about time on the clock, but the subjective time in which you deal with yourself in the solitary experience of being a speck of sand in the middle of a large desert”
Two exhibitions in Qatar, at the QMA Gallery in Katara village and at the Alriwaq Doha exhibition space, along with his existing sculpture 7 at the Museum of Islamic Art, mean Serra is currently being celebrated in four different locations across the small nation. The retrospective in Katara shows drawings and sculptures from across 50 years, including the headline piece One Ton Prop (House of Cards), from 1969. Most touching from this show are the black drawings that add a different dimension to our understanding of Serra’s preoccupation with simple solid shapes and a sense of weight. To escape gestural marks and apply dense, abstract colour, Serra melts down oily pigment into a brick that he rubs firmly onto the paper using both hands. The result is a set of the most opaque drawings imaginable, in black and white, that speak about nothingness.
East-West/West-East, at Brouq Nature Reserve, and 7, at the Museum of Islamic Art, are permanently on view