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.”
America’s most famous living sculptor has not always worked with steel. In the 1960s the young Yale graduate tried his hand at painting, although at the time he was making his living at a steelworks. A little later, on a trip to Paris, Serra discovered Constantin Brancusi’s studio (at the time partially reconstituted by the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris), not to mention the work of Alberto Giacometti. It was then that his fascination with steel found an artistic goal: Serra set out to exploit the formal qualities inherent in the weight, density and gravity of this industrial material, a turning point that would produce the works for which he has become famous, featuring either thick vertical plates of steel or sensuous curves that envelop the viewer.
In his 2019 interview with The New York Times, Serra explained that, “If you’re are dealing with abstract art, you have to deal with the work in and of itself and its inherent properties.” Radical, simple and austere, his works are never intended as a political or social commentary on their context. Their only point of reference is themselves, conjuring up for the viewer the physical forces of the world. But this doesn’t stop them from raising metaphysical questions of man’s place in the universe. In Qatar, Serra’s huge plates of rusted steel appear like abstract, minimalist reinterpretations of Giacometti’s iconic Walking Man, a figure whose eternal momentum is paired with a slight stoop of fatigue that reminds us of his frailty. Power and vulnerability are at the heart of Serra’s works: they rise gloriously towards the sky, all the while being constantly attacked by wind, sun, rain and, in the desert, sand. His steel takes on the colours of its weathering – ochre, red, orange, amber, brown – like an alchemical table in constant mutation, until eventually it weathers entirely away.
“East-West/ West-East”, Richard Serra.
“East-West/ West-East”, Richard Serra.
It was in 1969 that Serra turned to industrially fabricated Corten steel. The Qatari plaques were manufactured in Germany and shipped to Doha, where they form a desert funerary monument to the glory of man’s omnipotence – man the Vulcan god, whose creations reach out towards the stars – but also to his frailty. “What I make is the opposite of an object,” Serra explained to Le Monde in 2008. “I make an object with a subject – the person who enters it and who will feel an experience there. Without that person, there is no artwork.” Standing in front of Serra’s monolithic menhirs, which recall both Stonehenge and 2001: A Space Odyssey, man is forced to measure himself against his own creations, which surpass him but are still nothing in comparison to the vast expanses of sand and sky where they are set. “I don’t want to place sculptural objects in space,” Serra told Le Monde, “but rather to make the entire space into a sculpture.” The blades of steel divide and recompose the desert space, forming a series of giant yardsticks with which to measure its immeasurableness.