"7" Up: Richard Serra Unveils New Sculpture in Doha

A view of Richard Serra's "7" and the Doha skyline in Qatar
(Courtesy of Qatar Museums Authority)

Three years in the making, Richard Serra's landmark sculpture "7" was unveiled Thursday at the launch of the Doha's Museum of Islamic Art's (MIA) new park, with a royal ceremony and a blend of pride and puzzlement in a country where Western art's baby-steps are taken by leaps and bounds.

"The content of the work is not the work. The meaning of the work is your experience inside the work. Or when you see if from far away, it has another meaning. But if all those things mean nothing to you, then it's meaningless," said the artist, hard at work explaining the seven plates of German Cor-ten steel that stretch 80 feet into the air, making it Serra's tallest sculpture yet  and his first public commission in the Middle East.

As Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani arrived with an entourage of family, among it his daughter, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the driving force behind Qatar's grand art drive, headlamp-wearing diver guards sat ready on jet skis but the bay at the MIA park remained calm. In the cold night air, the royals and some 700 invitees enjoyed the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra's performance Hugues de Courson's "The Magic Lutes" before venturing over to Serra's cone-like sculpture, which draws visitors in through its three triangular openings, to gaze upward towards a small opening resembling a hex socket with an extra flank. During the day, the sun adds new shadow layers; illuminated at night, the steel turned a hazy Columbia blue and the rusty patina shone a golden yellow.

Few artists get to build a site for their site-specific artwork but Serra's project began as a 200-feet long Shanxi Black granite extension to the crescent-shaped esplanade that runs from the MIA along the park. Built on the boulders and rubble left after the museum's construction, the extension deftly places "7" between the modern Arab-inspired architecture of the museum and the skyline of Doha's most metropolitan half, an ever-growing motley patchwork of high-rises that include Jean Nouvel's intricately ornamental — and smoothly phallic — Doha Tower. 

Across the water, the sculpture has become a sober anchor and a guarded reminder against the overdrive of modern design. "We've seen a lot of bad post-modernist architecture in Doha," said Serra, examining the skyline. "This looks like, not the worst of the worst, but not the best of the best either. This sculpture stands in distinction to that kind of building. When I first came here, the only building over there was the Sheraton. It still remains one of the best buildings here."

Still, Serra's self-imposed mandate  and the reason why MIA architect I.M. Pei recommended him to Sheikha Al Mayassa, piloting the project as chairperson of the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) — was to create a work that complemented the Chinese-American architect's well-executed balance of a traditionally elemental Arabic shell with contemporary materials and details. "I took it upon myself to attempt to connect the aesthetic content of the museum to the possibility of building a public space for the people," said the artist. "The openings of the sculpture are on axis with the museum, so as you step inside, the museum seems to draw you into its internal space. At night, the museum is drawn into the sculpture. And from afar, the sculpture acts as a beacon to encourage people to walk through the park and out onto the pier."

Sheikha al Mayassa followed the project closely, visiting Serra at his studio as the artist contemplated an eight-sided, 66-feet tall model. "I wasn't totally convinced and she wasn't totally convinced," Serra remembered. With seven sides, the width was trimmed and the sculpture stretched. "My large-scale public sculptures can only be built where there is faith and values to support the enormous efforts of such an undertaking," noted Serra. 

Serra's towers have been infrequent over the past 30 years and the minarets of the Muslim world brought the artist back to verticality. "I studied all the minarets, from Spain to Yemen. There's one minaret, built between the 9th and the 11th centuries, in Afghanistan, in the city of Ghazni. It unfolds in a planar manner, it is not cylindrical. It wasn't so much inspiration as an element that I wanted to dovetail with '7'," he revealed. The number's preponderance in the Qur'an was an added coincidence. As was its importance to the 10th century Persian mathematician and astronomer Abu Sahl al-Quhi, who built the first hexagon to prove that it could be done. "Not in this shape, though," Serra noted with a smile. 

Asked by one journalist if the Emirs had suggested that he build something pointing towards Mecca, Serra tersely replied that "no, that never came up. Nor would I submit to that. That would be as absurd as if the Americans asked me to build something with an eagle, or the Germans asked me to incorporate a swastika." Though he would gladly take on another Middle Eastern project, the artist said he would not work in Saudi Arabia. "I just don't have a feeling for Saudi Arabia," he stated, remaining brief on the subject of Qatar's neighbor, a much more conservatively Islamic country.

One sculpture does not a park make and more commissions are planned, said Jean-Paul Engelen, the QMA's director of public art programs, revealing to ARTINFO that the next would be Cai Guo-qiang's "Homecoming," the ensemble of 62 large rocks from Quanzhou, inscribed with Qur'anic verses from Chinese tombstones, that currently greet visitors at the entrance to Cai's show "Saraab" at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. It would then also become Qatar's first acquisition among the 17 works commissioned for the exhibition. 

The Qataris hope that the 62-acre MIA park, due to open fully in January 2012, will become a haven for the emirate's people and help them connect with art, through concerts, workshops and screenings  and designer fittings by B+B Italia, Kettal and Morosso. Still, building a true art scene in Doha remains a long term project  and with only a handful of galleries and no dedicated art schools, the approach remains top down. 

For Doha's grand museums, soon to be joined by the Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar, Sheikha al Mayassa and her advisors have been buying important artworks en masse at Western auctions. In a few months, the emirate will open shows of Takashi Murakami and Louise Bourgeois. The Qatar Museum Authority will also curate Doha's new airport, "working with good international Western and Arabic artists,"said Mr. Engelen." The job is not to decorate it, it must have integrity," he added, revealing no artist names. "We have to do it step by step and we don't want to over-promise. There are rumors enough," he said.

All this had made international waves but seemingly less of an impact at home. At the Museum of Islamic Art, some 82 percent of its 700,000 visitors over the past three years have been expat residents or tourists, noted its director, Aisha al-Khater. There appeared to be some new interest in Serra's sculpture, however, with local artists wanting to meet with the sculptor over dinner and the Qatar Museum Authority producing a documentary on the project which aired on Al Jazeera. 

Richard Serra's sculpture is now "a beacon for the arts in Qatar," said Sheikha Mayassa in a statement  and "7" certainly looks emblematic of Qatar's efforts to build higher. The next step, more difficult, will be to build wider.