Richard Serra: East-West/West-East

If, one day, you happen, to find yourself wandering in the middle of the desert in Qatar, chances are you will come face-to-face with four towering steel plates, two ofwhich stand 14.7 metres tall. The other two rise 16.7 metres from the sandy earth.
Against the abandon of this land (though it is commonly frequented), which is in the middle of the Zekreet Peninsula in Doha, these curious objects are a dramatic and surprising feature of the environment, reminiscent, in part, of the black monolith that appears throughout Stanley Kubrick’s masterly 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That leaves so much up to interpretation. So silent, so unusual and so superbly charged with the fantastic ability to affect. The master behind the structures in the desert is the contemporary sculptor Richard Serra and indeed, once you are aware of this, the lean and rectangular steel constructs become ever so slightly less alien.
The 73-year-old says that this is perhaps the most fulfilling work he has ever done in his career, which begs the question as to why he would choose such an isolated location? Very few will venture here, unless, as mooted in the introduction, a bizarre element of chance leads you here.
Speaking to the Independent, he admits that although he had previously never considered developing a sculpture against the backdrop of a desert, when he visited Zekreet, the place simply “caught his imagination”. He had been invited by Sheikha Mayassa, chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority, who was keen on him “building a piece in the landscape”.
The commission, now entitled East-West/West-East, was too good to turn down. They four mesmeric objects were officially unveiled on April 8th, ahead of Serra’s first major exhibition in the Middle East. The freedom of invention has been nothing short of amazing for the artist.
“I’ve had a terrific relationship with Qatar,” he told the newspaper. “They’ve given me pretty much free rein to do what I wanted to do, with an unlimited budget and freedom to select the sites. In one instance – with the museum – I made the pier, we constructed the whole thing. That is a very rare situation. An artist couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Though the immediate audience in the region may have little experience in public art, let alone the works of Serra, the introduction of East-West/West-East is certainly a bold strategy on the part of the Qatar Museums Authority. They are exceptionally contemporary and, as is the American’s style, minimalistic. Easy to comprehend they are not, but they are so unlike anything else that they easily draw people in.
“You just have to present it and see how people react,” he elaborated during the interview. “You can’t spoon-feed … Because to try to force a meaning, to tell them what it’s supposed to be seems to me futile … You can point them in a direction, but they are going to have to find an experience that they want to return to.”
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