Get to Richard Serra East-West/West-Eastyou go west from Doha, hit the gulf coast near the village of Zekreet, and then turn right into nothingness.
“Swipe right,” Waze’s automated voice says. Slipping is not a problem, but going right would mean going straight into the ditch.
Guides tell you to come here in a vehicle “with some permission”. We are in a four-door compact Kia. You can feel every furrow, rock and wet sand and there is nothing but these things.
A road is not a road. There is no road. It’s a series of interconnected tracks left by 4×4 workers installing a nearby pipeline.
We stop by a pair of guys in reflective vests huddled in the shadow of a pile of material. Our driver Shakir talks to them in Hindi. They show us one way.
When we get lost, we stop a pickup truck that seems miles away. They come straight to paint. More pipeline workers, Egyptians.
The pair pile in so they can each shake hands before the interview begins. Shakir speaks to them in Arabic. They offer to lead us on the right path. Without them, we’d be out there feeding the lizards as you read this. Assuming lizards can survive here. What lives on this endless ruin?
“They are there mistakes?” says Nathan, the photographer.
“Oh sure,” says Shakir. “And cats.”
“Cats?!” Nathan says, turning his head.
“Desert cats. Very dangerous.”
Do you know what is actually dangerous? Driving in the desert in a compact car.
Next to me in the back seat, our colleague Neil digs his hands into the upholstery as the car starts to go sideways over the grade. You know how sometimes you can hear a person holding their breath? I can already hear it.
“You know Shakira, if you don’t like driving in…”
“Oh, no, no, I’m very comfortable,” Shakir says. The chassis shakes and groans as if one thread after another is being stretched.
Who would put a piece of art by arguably the world’s greatest living sculptor in a place you can’t get to without a locator, a very serious vehicle, and a lot of free time? The Qataris.
The World Cup is a trifle compared to their focus on contemporary art. To get to the main media center, you drive past a massive series of Damien Hirst sculptures. They graphically describe in detail the stages of fetal development. Why? Because they are outside the hospital.
In Canada, if people had enough money to put Damien Hirst outside a hospital, they would use it to build another hospital.
In the media center, where congresses are usually held, there is a massive edition of Louise Bourgeois’s book. Maman in the vestibule.
There is also one outside the National Gallery in Ottawa. You probably know it.
Here, he’s tucked between a McCafé and a gift shop, serving as an Instagram prop for rubies. Whenever you get directions to get to the press conference, they’ll say something like “turn right at the spider hall.”
The Qatari royal family spends shocking sums on art. Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler’s sister, is the most powerful merchant in the world. He oversees an annual arts budget said to be around $1 billion.
Serra is one of Qatar’s gems – the site was designed by the Emir – but seeing it requires determination. There is no address. All that is provided is the GPS coordinate.
Because you’re Canadian, you assume you’ll find it at the end of a lonely desert road. The end of this journey is just the beginning.
East-West/West-East it consists of four huge steel plates, each more than 14 meters high, protected by low ridges on both sides. Approaching from the west, you can see two slabs, tricking you into thinking you’re almost there. But that’s the point where you have to decide how close you want to be to them. That’s the entrance fee.
Serra’s pieces are usually found in practical places like museums and airports.
This is absolutely impractical. We cover four kilometers in 40 minutes. Serra suggested that people could go to work, which I think is crazy. Until the car moves over another hidden boulder, at which point walking seems like a futile proposition.
The eerie effect of crawling towards these huge obelisks across the wasteland evokes a sense of awe close to religion. The sculpture in the Brouq nature reserve has an area of one kilometer.
There’s something heavy and mythic about their location, like stumbling upon an alien landing site. Which I guess you have. These things don’t belong here and neither do we. But we’re both here.
Through an intermediary, I asked Qatar’s head of public art, Abdulrahman Al-Ishaq, how best to approach the work.
“On a first visit, I recommend approaching the artwork on foot from the east at least 30 minutes before sunset that day,” writes Al-Ishaq.
Excellent idea. I’m sure the light is stunning at that time. But then we would have to go back in total darkness and die.
Once you’ve finally arrived, there’s the joy of having survived. Then the dread hits you again as you approach them. How could they do that?
I’m not much for the idea of ’experiencing’ art. When I think of masterpieces, I think of some German tourist who elbowed me away so he could take a picture Starry night from two feet. What I’m experiencing is annoyance.
But you will experience hell. You are standing next to one of the plates that change from gray to deep over time and you feel very small in a very big world. It’s a surprisingly soothing feeling. They will be here long after I’m gone, changing at a pace measured geologically. I saw them once. I touched them. I was there.
While we are taking pictures, a top Mercedes comes from the other direction. It is piloted by an Irish contractor who lives in Qatar and works in World Cup stadiums. He brought his girlfriend to see it.
“I can’t believe you came here car,” he says.
He will make us firm and suggest an easier path than we have embarked on. We return to the car and take a group photo with Shakir. He stared at the plates for a while and took pictures of them on his phone.
“What is it?” he says at one point.
“Oh. Art,” Shakir says thoughtfully, taking another long look. “I’m glad to see it.”