American sculptor Richard Serra has planted four 50ft steel towers in Qatari desert for latest project East-West/West-East - Features - Art - The Independent

American sculptor Richard Serra has planted four 50ft steel towers in Qatari desert for latest project East-West/West-East

The man routinely referred to as the world's greatest living sculptor says the work is "the most fulfilling thing I've ever done" despite the fact that he doesn't know if it will ever be seen

The man routinely referred to as the world's greatest living sculptor - voted third greatest living artist in a Vanity Fair poll last year - is worried. "This is the most fulfilling thing I've ever done," says Richard Serra, talking about his latest work. "It's a piece that I'd really like to be seen, and I don't know if it will."

Still sinewy, but now more softly spoken, the 74-year-old American "Man of Steel" looks fretful. This might seem strange; don't crowds flock to Serra exhibitions across the continents? But the work in question, East-West/West-East, is hardly in the most accessible of locations – in the middle of the desert in the Zekreet Peninsula on the west coast of Qatar, an hour's drive from the capital, Doha.

Why, then, did he choose this place to erect the four steel plates, two of which rise 14.7 metres above the ground and the others 16.7 metres, which, adjusted for the topography, means that they are all level with each other, and with the gypsum plateaus either side?

"I've been coming here for about 12 years," says Serra, over tea at the Four Seasons hotel in Doha. He was introduced to Sheikha Mayassa, Chairperson of the country's Museums Authority and the sister of Qatar's new Emir, by IM Pei, the architect of Doha's iconic Museum of Islamic Art, when she was still a student.

"And when I first came Sheikha Mayassa said to me, 'you should build a piece in the landscape'. I said, 'what landscape?' She said, 'the desert'." Serra replied that he'd never had any desire to build in the desert, but that he'd go and take a look. When he did, the site at Zekreet "really caught my imagination. You have a ground plane and then an elevation of about 16 metres, so it's a bit like you have two elevation planes within one field." For an artist who says "I consider space to be my primary material," that was an exciting prospect.

The works are stunning, rising like great pillars in a one kilometre corridor between the crumbling cliffs that make Zekreet a regular destination for residents and tourists. Although obviously modern, built in smooth steel already beginning to acquire the russet patina of rust that is the trademark of Serra's latter works, as opposed to his early sculptures in lead, they seem timeless: as though they have already stood there for centuries and will stand there for centuries to come, watching civilisations rise and fall. "Let's hope!" says Serra. "It's hard for me to speak of that, but I think that's implied in the work."

Richard Serra's 'East-West/West-East' in Qatar (Qatar Museum Authority/Rik Van Lent) Richard Serra's 'East-West/West-East' in Qatar (Qatar Museum Authority/Rik Van Lent)
Serra's public art has always been driven by the desire to "take sculpture off the pedestal and into the street". To him, the content of the work derives from the interaction of the viewer with that work – which means he has pedestrians in mind. "Did you walk it?" he asks, when I tell him I'd made the trip out to see the pillars the previous afternoon. "I see the site as one to be experienced, to be walked, but you can't force that." This is a country, after all, where the temperature reaches 50C in summer. Even on a spring afternoon, the steel plates have absorbed enough heat to slow cook scrambled eggs. Come June, they will be far too hot to touch, and walking is hardly a way of life here.

As well as the desert commission, Serra has two shows opening in Doha, a retrospective at the QMA Gallery in the Katara cultural village, and a new work, Passage of Time, taking up the whole of the 5,000 square metres of the Al Riwaq exhibition space on the Corniche. In December 2011, he erected a tower, 7, on a specially built pier next to IM Pei's museum. It's obvious why he's happy to come here: "I've had a terrific relationship with Qatar. 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."

But what does he think people in Qatar – where there has been no tradition of public art – will make of it? "I have no idea. What I think is interesting about 7 and the piece in desert is that you don't have to know anything about art – you're just going to get an experience that's different from most other sculpture. Then you can digest how or why it's different."

He elaborates on the Zekreet pillars and their almost eerily barren surroundings: "Before, there was no way of discerning where anything was in relation to where you were, because you had no point of reference. What that piece does is give you a point of reference in relationship to a line, and your upstanding relationship to a vertical plane and infinity, and a perspectival relationship to a context – and pulls that context together. It makes it graspable. That's actually a place out there now, and there certainly wasn't one before. We did that simply by putting up four plates."

He acknowledges that may not be quite how local viewers put it. "You just have to present it and see how people react. 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."

He goes on: "I think this country is trying to jump centuries, and that's a hard game. But it's a phenomenon, there's nothing quite like it." Something that will almost certainly be said, whether they like it or not, by those who come across Serra's new towers in the sand.

Richard Serra is at QMA Gallery , Katara, and at Al Riwaq exhibition space on the Corniche, both in Doha, Qatar, to 6 July. East-West/West-East is in the Brouq Nature Reserve, near Zekreet, Qatar, for significantly longer ( richardserraqatar.qa/en/)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week