Abigail Esman
Looking East and West

As East-West/West-East, a major new Richard Serra work, arrives in Doha, Abigail Esman recalls meeting an artist described as the greatest living sculptor.

Richard Serra stands in the sunlight, the majesty of the masterpiece of his career rising high above him, skyward: 80 feet of steel cracking the sun and shading the waters of the Gulf of Arabia, plate by plate, angle by angle. It is, says Serra a “ballast, a destination point”.

A powerful, steely man himself, despite his 72 years and a recent back injury that threatened to cripple him (he has since nearly fully recovered), Serra has a reputation for being combative and controversial. He has been called not only the greatest living sculptor but, by the iconoclastic critic Robert Hughes, “the only great [sculptor] at work anywhere in the 21st century". But none of this is evident now as he stands dwarfed by the enormity of this steel tower, in the shadow of its significance.

And it is significant: The tower, titled simply 7, is the first piece of public Western art in this small Middle Eastern country that has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to creating what is now one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the world. This is its new crown jewel.

“I’ve been making towers for 30 years,” says Serra, speaking to an audience of journalists and colleagues on the event of the work’s inauguration, “and I’ve made several towers. But I’ve never made a tower like this tower.”

In many ways, this tower - a soaring interplay of immense steel plates, of walls and forms that rise high above the Gulf - is unlike any sculpture ever built. Not only did the artist design the work itself, but he also created the very land on which it stands — a 300-foot-long pier extending along the corniche, and in juxtaposition with the city’s renowned I.M.Pei–designed Museum of Islamic Art as to incorporate the building into the very being of the work. Architecture and sculpture, in a sense, simultaneously separate and acting as one.

The tower works to unite myriad forces, personal and political, historical and aesthetic, of geology and of art, of sky, sea and earth. Like all of Serra’s sculptural oeuvre, it ties the viewer in to his environment, surrounding whoever enters into its embrace, imposing itself upon the landscape, reshaping the very experience of the space that it inhabits. “The content of the work,” the artist explains, “is not the work. The content of the work is what you feel when you go inside.”

But if the viewer is the subject, the sculpture itself is, in many ways, defined by the viewer, and his perception of it. Hence, when asked about its meaning, Serra responds with characteristic conviction. “The meaning of the work,” he says, “is your experience inside the work. The meaning of the work, when you’re on the corniche and you see it — that’s one meaning. You get 30 feet away, that’s another meaning. You get inside, that’s another meaning. But if all those things mean nothing to you, then it’s meaningless.”

It’s hard to imagine “those things” meaning nothing to anyone and they certainly are not meaningless to the artist. In essence, is the culmination of Serra’s entire personal and artistic history, bringing his student days of traveling through Southern Europe and North Africa on a Fulbright grant and his studies, in 1982, of Mozarabic architecture in Spain, to bear on the achievements of a lifetime of experimentation, search and sweat. He has over the course of his career created films (Hand Catching Lead and, with Philip Glass, Hands Scraping, both made in 1968); collaborated on earthworks (he assisted in the installation of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a seminal work that defined the movement of land art in 1970); and stood at the center of numerous public controversies, disputes, and has even received death threats. His drawings - thick, sensuous applications of oilstick pigment on linen or paper - carry echoes of pitch and earth; they are works of gravitas. But even these, despite his early explorations into Arabic aesthetics and design, are born of a very specific tradition of American-Western-art. In Doha, he has united them.

“I am from the West,” says Serra, who was commissioned to create 7 by Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at I.M. Pei’s suggestion. “So I tried very hard to understand what I was doing in this culture. I studied the architecture. I studied the minarets. I took it very, very seriously. I wanted to tie what I do with what’s been done —not with what’s been done last year, or a century ago, but 10 centuries ago. And I found one building, and it’s in Afghanistan.”

That building was a single minaret in Ghazni, dating from the ninth to 11th centuries AD and, unlike most minarets, had been built not cylindrically but “in a planar fashion” just as Serra’s towers have always been. On discovering the Ghazni building, Serra immediately determined that, “I could use my vocabulary, and dovetail into the vocabulary of the Afghan minaret quite easily.”

Working from this model, the artist developed several studies: five-sided, six-sided, and eight-sided, before making yet another discovery. The Persian mathematician Abu Sahl al-Quhi, had built, on the basis of Archimedean geometry, the first model of a seven-sided figure inscribed within a circle. “In my fantasy,” muses Serra, “this connected my work to the kind of investigation that has always gone on for centuries in this part of the world.” (Another happy coincidence was that the number seven held particular significance for certain mystical and Sufi interpretations of Islam.)

Building the sculpture, however, was only part of the challenge: before even beginning to design a work, Serra had confronted the matter of finding a place to put it. Earlier, accompanied by Sheikha and the Pei team, Serra had visited the then newly built museum and the corniche along Doha’s edge, seeking the perfect site for the sculpture-to-be. He found nothing. But “suppose,” he proposed, “we went out onto the water.”

The construction of the Museum of Islamic Art had left what Serra describes as “a mess of a rubble” in its wake. He and the construction team put that rubble to work, extending the crescent of the esplanade to create the jetty that is today Doha’s new MIA park and the sculpture site.

It was no easy feat. The project required extraordinary engineering skills, involving 18 divers to place 10,000 cement batons beneath the sea bed. The process was made especially complex, according to Serra, “by the fact that the currents are different on either side.” Nonetheless, some three years and one million man hours later, the design and installation of 7 could begin.

The finished work, the tallest of Serra’s towers to date, stands 10 feet wide at its base, narrowing to nine feet at the top, with seven sides encompassing three triangular openings that reveal and conceal the surrounding landscape. From its center, one looks up to view a seven-sided slice of the heavens, a piece of sky suddenly given meaning and form.

But if the sculpture, in its Ozymandian presence, binds together the ancient Arab world and the contemporary West, the cityscape with the sea, and Pei’s museum with the magic of Serra’s art, 7 like all of Serra’s sculptures, touches on the person who is Richard Serra, uniting him with all who experience his work.

Built of German-made Cor-Ten steel — as are all of his massive sculptures, which wind in torques and arcs, or thrust, towering, from the earth — 7 reflects the artist’s own history, starting with his youth spent working in the steel mills to fund his education. At home, his father, a pipefitter in the shipyards of San Francisco, frequently engaged in political debates with Serra’s uncles; the left-leaning politics of the family still influence the artist, who famously exhibited a drawing at the 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York depicting a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, a direct condemnation of then-president George Bush. “I am not a political artist,” he told The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan in 2008, “but anything I can do to make a difference, I will.”

Richard Serra is at QMA Gallery , Katara, and at Al Riwaq exhibition space to 6 July. East-West/West-East is in the Brouq Nature Reserve, near Zekreet

The sculptor Richard Serra; 7 was based in part on the Ghazni Minarets in Afghanistan. Photos: Richard Serra by Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images; James Merrell; Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images