Damien in Doha

British art icon, Damien Hirst, travels to the Middle East for his first exhibition in the region. Abed Ayyad explains how Doha prepared for the high-profile arrival.

Katharina Nery had been awake since 4:45 a.m. on August 21, but the head curator of Doha’s AlRIWAQ art gallery wasn't complaining when Qulture spoke to her five hours later. “I love the part when the art arrives,” she said. 

In this case, the artwork is Damien Hirst’s Leviathan, a 33,000-pound shark immersed in formaldehyde. It landed in Qatar just after the crack of dawn and had to be forklifted into the gallery. The giant fish, never before on display, is one of the major pieces that make up "Relics," Hirst's first show in the region, opening October 9 at the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).

The shark's arrival represented the near culmination of a year’s work for Nery and more than 800 people from around the world. A bevy of workmen, museum professionals and specialist art movers, speaking Hindi, Arabic, German and English, scurried around the space in an attempt to get Leviathan — which remained sealed in something resembling a wrought iron shipping container — on the ground. Others were busy welding, polishing and tidying up the 50,000 square feet of AlRIWAQ, a modular building adjacent to the Museum of Islamic Art.

For Jean Paul Engelen, director of public art at the QMA, which operates AlRIWAQ, Doha is, perhaps unexpectedly, a great location for a Hirst retrospective. Unlike Britain, where the artist's persona is already well established, Hirst comes to the Arabian Peninsula “without any baggage."  Visitors can experience "Relics" “with fresh eyes."

According to Francesco Bonami, an art scholar who contributed an essay to the catalog that accompanies the show, Hirst’s worldwide relevance lies in his ability to make use of “universal triggers” within the semiotic tools he adopts: The figure of a shark needs no introduction in any culture, and thus the poignancy of Leviathan is evident without explanation as the work travels across continents.

That sentiment is echoed by Engelen, who compares the upcoming "Relics" to an Andy Warhol exhibit he visited as a teenager at Cologne’s Ludwig Museum, in 1989. Like Warhol in decades past, Hirst's work speaks to the region's youth in a “very contemporary language” that, hopefully, will prompt young Qatari students — the QMA has an extensive outreach program with schools in the country — to think about art in a new way.


One art world insider based in the Gulf (who chose to remain anonymous because of a prior relationship with the QMA) goes one step further, saying she believes that Hirst's take on culture will make an even bigger impact than Warhol. “The American Pop artists of the 1960s used the iconography of industrialization and mass production in their art. But these issues weren't present in the Middle East," she says. "Their relevance is still debatable. However, Hirst has used pop iconography to discuss life and death, the existential and the experiential, things that remain very relevant in the Middle East, and they definitely resonate [with audiences here]."

So which pieces from "Relics" will excite visitors the most? After Leviathan, Engelen points to One Thousand Years, a sculpture from 1990 that is made up of flies, glass and steel, as well as The Miraculous Journey, a monumental scupture that was commissioned especially for Doha and will be unveiled at Qatar’s Sidra Medical Research Centre two days before "Relics" is on view.

While Engelen is still hush-hush about the details of Journey, he does admit that the piece was "inspired by science." This should come as no surprise to Hirst followers. The poster child of the Young British Artists (YBAs) two decades ago, the artist has had a sometimes unsettling fascination with medical themes and instruments that springs from his visits to Leeds University Medical School in the 1980s, where he was exposed to Victorian-era medical curiosities.

Hirst's work makes use of universally relevant motifs like sharks. This 2012 piece is a forerunner of the much larger Leviathan, to be shown for the first time in Doha this October.

His often disconcerting attachment to dead animals, pharmaceuticals and medical instruments is usually mixed with a heavy dose of British gallows humor, and for that reason this is clearly the right venue for him now. Contemporary Doha, Engelen points out, is a city that wants to leave behind a legacy of architecture and artists, scientists and writers, more than just “cars and watches." He is surprised by the extent of interest shown in Europe and is taken aback by the number of arts aficionados planning a trip to Qatar to see the show.

Says Engelen, "We will not see [this kind of exhibition] again during our lifetimes. I am 100 percent certain of that." 

Damien Hirst. Photos: Billie Scheepers/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd; Prudence Cuming Associates/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.