Friday, June 3, 2016

Qatar cultural matters

Abu Dhabi tends to get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to museums in the Gulf due to the astonishing cultural precinct being created on Saadiyat Island (see my past blog post on the subject).

However, just across the water Qatar is seeking to culturally emulate their Gulf cousins. On the collecting front they have chosen to buy the world’s second and fourth most expensive artworks to date. (Respectively, Paul Cézanne’s "The Card Players" for c.$250 million and Pablo Picasso’s "Les Femmes d’Alger” for $179.3 million.) And they have also been using ‘starchitects’ to good effect.

So far they have an I.M. Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in 2008 and a Jean Nouvel National Museum being built. The former is a truly beautiful building, set on a spit of reclaimed land with lush landscaping. Whilst to me the interior competes with the artefacts on display, which is always a temptation for starchitects, the overall museum experience there is a very satisfying one.
Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar
(Showing interior competing with display of artefacts)

Half a mile away the National Museum struggles. Designed around the concept of the desert rose, the building opening is already two years late and it looks way off completion. Beautiful as it may end up being, clearly the nature of a structure where there are no straight lines is taxing the builders, not to mention the exhibition installers, once they can get inside. But the big disappointment for me is that, whereas the Museum of Islamic Art is well positioned away from other buildings and set in gardens, the National Museum is squashed between a bridge and high rise development, an aspect that the artist’s renditions fail to include.

One other highlight of Qatar is Richard Serra’s extraordinary and, dare I say, somewhat bizarre 'East-West/West-East' installation. It takes about an hour driving west from Doha to reach and comprises of 4 vast weathered steel plates set into an obscure valley in the desert, aligned in an east west direction over 1.6km. Serra’s impetus for creating this piece is well detailed in the New Yorker.

How successful this desert installation has turned out to be is debatable. Serra had hoped that ‘people will either walk or drive to the pieces’. The former is not only impractical but in Qatar conditions, downright dangerous. And sadly, where the latter is happening it seems only for the pastime of applying graffiti. Interestingly, Serra’s hope of the weathered steel turning to a dark amber is not being realised in the desert conditions, an issue which is the subject of a technical paper at the forthcoming IIC Conference in LA in September on the conservation of contemporary art.

'East-West/West-East' by Richard Serra
(Showing weathered steel corrosion not occurring as planned)

Quite how the rapid development of all the new museums in the Gulf will play out remains to be seen, but Qatar is ensuring it plays its part.

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