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/)

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us