Among the scorching dunes, in temperatures often exceeding 40° C, four 15 m-high steel plates cast shadows that seem to extend to infinity, black brushstrokes on a canvas of sand. Completed in 2014, 80 km outside Doha, Richard Serra’s installation East-West/West-East punctuates a desert landscape that is both lunar and sublime, in the original sense of the word, since Serra reminds the viewer, like 19th-century German Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, of man’s frailty in the face of nature’s omnipotence. Except that here viewers can not only walk about inside the painting but can also in a way paint it themselves by choosing the viewing angles (from the top of the dunes or the depth of the shadows) and the time of visit (day or night).
The desert was not an obvious choice for an artist who was born by the sea, in San Francisco, and whose madeleine de Proust is the giant steel silhouettes of the hulls of vessels at the shipyard where his father used to take him. But the desert site that was offered to Serra by Sheikha Al-Mayassa – Qatari princess, chair of the board of Qatar Museums and cultural queen of the kingdom – was perhaps not such a long shot: in 2019, in an interview with The New York Times, the artist himself declared that the sea was “like the desert with water.”