Essays

Thoughts on Richard Serra in Qatar

by Bryan Waterman on June 5, 2014

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(all photographs by Molly Waterman for Hyperallergic)

DOHA, Qatar — This spring, Richard Serra has made his mark on the Arab Gulf in a characteristically big way. Several important pieces are currently on view in Qatar, two of them permanent installations commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). In addition to the permanent pieces, two gallery shows (on view through July 6) allow viewers to take in the full sweep of Serra’s four-plus decades as one of America’s — and the world’s — foremost sculptors. In a beach-lined arts-and-leisure district known as Katara Cultural Village, a mini-retrospective at the QMA Gallery brings together works ranging from the seminal “One Ton Prop (House of Cards)” (1969), to the eight-plate spiral “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” (1987), with its hidden octagonal center, to “The Consequence of Consequence” (2011), two enormous steel blocks set in consideration of one another. Also on display at Katara is a series of works on paper, enormous sheets coated in huge black blocks of paintstick, from 2013, and “Double Torqued Ellipse” (1999), installed out of doors, which allows you to duck inside the piece and witness its play of sunlight and shadows framing the open sky.

After a half-hour’s drive along Doha’s waterfront Corniche, passing through the silver fin of the city’s chrome and glass skyline, you’ll find more of Serra’s work within walking distance of I. M. Pei’s stunning Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). The permanent piece “7” (2011), seven steel plates standing vertically to form a looming, 25m-tall tower, rises at the end of a palm-lined pier that juts from MIA Park into a turquoise-colored bay. Nearby, in a cavernous warehouse gallery known as Alriwaq, two identical, 70m-long curving steel sheets are inverted against one another to form the 4m-high, canyonesque “Passage of Time” (2012), a work related to but much larger than anything displayed at Gagosian in New York in recent years. The hangar-sized space provides adequate room to experience the piece from the outside as well as from within its winding interior. Encountering another viewer as you round a bend is like encountering a stranger at a crossroads.

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The most important piece on display — and the largest work yet of Serra’s career in terms of sheer space covered — requires a drive across the Qatari peninsula almost to the opposite shore. You’ll take what’s known as the Dukhan Highway until you get to the junction for Khawzan, then turn to the left on the parallel service road until you reach an underpass designed to let camels under the highway: “Camel Underpass No. 7,” to be precise. From there, veer left, off road — you’ll need a 4×4 — and drive until you see the piece, or look for N 25 31.019’ E050 51.948’ on your GPS. There, installed between two beige and white limestone plateaus in the sands of the Brouq Nature Preserve, four enormous vertical sheets, 14.7 to 16.7m high, jut out of the earth to form a line that spans a full kilometer perpendicular to the horizon. Gargantuan markers of space and time — the height of the desert rocks and the time it takes to pass from one steel uprising to another — the individual panels bear some resemblance to the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey if it had been set in the southwestern US.

Measuring its place in the horizon like so many bookmarks, “East-West/West-East” (2012-2014) towers with the grandeur of Stonehenge or the ruins of a classical city and more than any work of Serra’s I’ve ever encountered it establishes an organic relationship to its surroundings, the steel plates as much a reference to the earth’s elemental forces and materials as they are to human industry. Our driver remarked on the way there that an Australian couple had recently taken two hours to view the piece; if we were quicker, he said, he could show us a lot more of the nature preserve. We took the full two hours with the Serra, and it was worth every riyal.

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I first encountered Serra’s work 20 years ago at the start of a Ph.D. program in American Studies. The introduction came via an essay by the intellectual and cultural historian Casey Blake on the controversy over Serra’s piece “Tilted Arc,” which was commissioned for Foley Square in lower Manhattan’s courthouse district and installed in 1981, only to be protested by federal workers and residents and removed in 1989 after lengthy public hearings and a lawsuit brought by Serra against the government. Blake, who reads the whole affair as a missed opportunity for democratic conversation, describes Serra’s piece as creating an “atmosphere of effrontery,” asserting itself over and against the Federal Plaza’s sterile, bureaucratized environment in order to maintain a critical perspective on consumer culture and the capitalist state. As Serra explained during the protracted controversy: “My works become party of and are built into the structure of [a specific] site, and they often restructure, both conceptually and perceptually, the organization of the site.” In this case he sought to reorder what would eventually become the set of Law and Order.

Many in the art world rallied around Serra’s claim that a site-specific piece would be destroyed if it were relocated: Tilted Arc was designed precisely to occupy Foley Square. The art historian Benjamin Buchloh, defending Serra, argued that those who sought to protect “the prison house architecture of Federal Plaza against the intrusion” of Tilted Arc were identifying with the aggressor, but many citizens could only see the work as an rusting sheet of metal they had to walk around on their way to work, a target for graffiti writers and a urinal for the homeless. As Blake points out, Serra’s stance throughout the controversy was soundly antipopulist; buckling to popular sentiment, he argued, would be tantamount to crass commercialism. In his defense, Serra and his supporters appealed to the artist’s working-class roots and his experience in industrial fabrication before turning to sculpture. Artists, he claimed, are part of the working class. But as Blake points out, Serra’s work often depends on an audience educated by institutions — galleries, museums, universities — an audience made familiar with specific conventions, histories, and concepts. Even so, Blake concludes that to frame the debate over “Tilted Arc” as a conflict between two “taste publics” doesn’t quite account for the power issues involved, including the agency of state institutions — often framed by conservatives and the general public as elitist — to commission public art that pushes envelopes for ordinary citizens. What Serra had created in Foley Square, Blake writes, is “public art without a public.”

Fast forward to Qatar, a quarter-century after “Tilted Arc” came down. What kind of public will Serra find in the Gulf? “Tilted Arc” seems to have been on Serra’s mind in April when he answered questions about his relationship to his Qatari royal patrons by saying he’d enjoyed more freedom of expression in Qatar than he had in the US. But the old controversy seems also to have shaped the way Serra’s work has been rolled out by the QMA to new and in some ways untrained audiences. True, the public works in Doha and the nearby desert are nowhere as intrusive as the earlier work in Manhattan. “Effrontery” hardly captures their spirit. Yet some Doha residents have still been hard-pressed to see the work’s value or even its status as art: “1) Obtain large, disused building materials,” one commenter on a Doha News article wrote. “2) Stick them randomly in a field (preferably one belonging to a wealthy country); 3) Come up with a deep, ambiguous, catchy title — East/West, North/South, Happiness/Sadness, Diasporas/gatherings, etc. etc.” Others asked why QMA commissioned expensive work from foreign artists instead of cultivating the careers of Qatari artists. But some commentators were clearly more impressed, even when they didn’t expect to be:

The emphasis here on affect responds directly to the QMA’s public relations and social media campaigns surrounding these works, which ask viewers to tweet about the work using the phrase “I felt” and the hashtag #serraqatar. Or you can log in to the QMA website and record your feelings there, where they will be incorporated into a constantly updated visualization of the feelings of all respondents.

On one hand, the QMA’s approach is a brilliant piece of marketing, prescribing for its public the desired response to a Serra piece: an examination of one’s emotional reception of the work. The injunction to feel — and to feel as others feel — aims to disarm the knee-jerk response of those whose unfamiliarity with the work or hostility to modernist sculpture might cause them to reject it outright. The leading question “How will you feel?” functions as an invitation to visit the shows and experience them in person, as does the social media impulse not to miss out on what others are doing. But the turn to affect or emotion also seems to forestall the intellectual work provoked by conceptual art. To say you feel small or powerful or lost seems to be a lesser-order response than to talk about how a work reshapes the spatial or temporal dimensions of an environment or calls into question the tradition of monumental public art itself.

Is the impulse to record viewers’ feelings on encountering Serra’s work simply an index to how art audiences have changed over the last 25 years? The trend in relation to Serra’s sculpture seems to go beyond the QMA website. The Guardian, writing about a 2005 Serra show in Bilboa, was all about the feelings the work provoked:

Once you are in the enormous Guggenheim gallery which these sculptures fill, once you are absorbed in their space and pacing out their convolutions, you feel suddenly free — far from the dead zone of mass-media quotation, released from all that vulgar, tedious postmodernist litter and twitter, from the creepy posturings, tired bad-boy claptrap and squalid sanctimony that characterise PoMo and BritArt. It is quite a good feeling — rather like the old days, one’s inner fogey is tempted to say.

Nicholas Niarchos, writing about “East-West/West-East” for The New Yorker last month, also emphasizes the emotional dimensions of reception: he remembers the sense of transgression he had on entering a Serra sculpture for the first time at Dia:Beacon and also notes the emotions the work apparently provoked in Qatar’s former Emir, the father of QMA head Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani: “When Serra chose the location for the installation of the plates,” Niarchos reports, citing an anecdote Serra also gave the Doha News, “he went to see the Sheikh. ‘He was very touched by the fact — I could see it in his eye — he was moved by the fact that I had chosen the [Brouq preserve],” where the Emir’s uncles had taken him as a boy to gaze on grazing antelope.

Perhaps such anecdotes serve to preempt local opposition to Serra’s work or the investment of funds the country has made to support it. (Sheikha Mayassa, whose QMA annual budget is reported to be 1 billion USD, has been called the most powerful person in the world of contemporary art.) Or perhaps in our social media era it’s easiest to communicate our responses to challenging artistic work using emotional shorthands and hashtags. But it may also be the case that Serra’s work has always been about feeling, in a materialist sense: the way his work elicits a physical response, plays with our senses, interacts with our bodily rhythms, or provokes a fundamental fear of collapse or danger. Perhaps it has always been about the way in which rethinking an environment can provoke a change in feeling about it as well. Blake argues that Serra’s populist opponents in 1980s lower Manhattan operated from an emotional starting point: “Tilted Arc” left them feeling powerless, not just about the plaza, but about their relationships to government and to cultural elites.

If the QMA has its way, Serra’s work will serve a pedagogic purpose by helping its public to think about feeling and to feel about thinking; by framing the new permanent pieces in relation to the mini-retrospective the curators offer lessons in art history and appreciation. The balance between the feeling and thinking is captured perfectly in another QMA social media effort, #Serra_CGP, or Serra Creative Generation Project, which seeks to document Serra’s impact on young Qatari artists. The cartoonist Abdul-Aziz Yousef responds less in emotional than in intellectual terms, theorizing Serra’s technique in relation to the spaces his works inhabit:

Yousef’s answers step away from the “I feel” framework to explain Serra’s “technique” and its effects. His own reaction moves from shock, to absorption, to understanding — a reception process with its own temporal rhythms. But during his final comparison of the piece “7” to an Arabian “essence holder,” a vessel for your thoughts, Yousef betrays an emotional connection as well — an impulse to render the foreign familiar, an openness to cosmopolitan — perhaps even universalist — feelings, that bodes well for the long-term impact of Serra’s work and reputation in this part of the world.

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