Is Richard Serra’s colossal sculpture in the desert anti-environmental McArt, asks Sharif S Elmusa
In 2014, nearly a century after the American poet Wallace Stevens figuratively “placed a jar in Tennessee”, his compatriot, sculptor Richard Serra, or more precisely a crew of workers and machines, placed a massive Serra-designed sculpture of four tall, steel plates in the Qatari desert. It is titled “East-West/West- East”, to indicate the direction of the layout, identity of the artist and location of the sculpture. Despite the distance in time and space between the placement of the two objects, and that the one is imaginary and the other real, they have stuck together in my mind ever since I saw Serra’s production in the spring of 2015. The jar is catapulted to Tennessee, far away from where Stevens lived in the state of Connecticut, and the sculpture even farther away geographically and culturally from Serra’s residence. Bland, nondescript and, on the face of it, value-free, shying away from the personal, yet in the minds of the creators the perfect geometry and verticality of the artefacts, their rationality, endows them with the power to possess and bring order to the surrounding wilderness.
And the more I thought and read about the two objects the more their juxtaposition became compelling, for they raised significant questions regarding the relationship between the artwork and the land that might be greatly clarified by examining them side by side. Does the work create intimacy with, or detachment and alienation from, nature? Does it improve our relationship with the land? Does it take the site as a locus or a background, become “of” it or just “in” it? Concerns like these are not independent of the controversies regarding the relative aesthetic agency imputed to the elements of the ensemble, which traditionally were limited to production, work and beholder. The matter of nature’s agency entered the fray only recently, mainly in tandem with the eco or environmental art movement.
To get to the sculpture we drove for about 70 miles west of Doha to Ras Brouq Natural Reserve, near the ruins of the village of Zekreet, and once off the highway negotiated some rugged ground with rocks, thorn and natural bumps. There one could see the steel columns rising between two gypsum outcrops, aligned with the width of the peninsula. According to the artist, the heights of the plates vary between 14.75 and 16.75 metres, so their tops appear at the same level despite the curvature of the terrain. They are instantiated in a straight line at nearly equidistant intervals, with about one kilometre between the first and last ones.
They were rolled in Germany, and meant to acquire a rusty colour by oxidisation, which they had already done when I saw them, a year after they rose at the site, and to also weather extreme temperature variations and sandstorms, a kind of industrial “Fordist” contraption. The sculpture may be classified as land art of the 1960s, US Minimalist variety with its “restricted vocabulary of geometrical shape,” in art historian Anna Chave’s words. Minimalism purportedly refrained from subjective expression, or the conveyance of the creator’s values and inner feelings, that had been integral to art: “what you see is what you see,” declared Frank Stella, one of Minimalism’s early practitioners. The artist in this case left it up to the spectator, to complete the work and assess its effect, ideas reiterated in Serra’s statements about his desert sculpture.
Stevens’ poem, “Anecdote of the Jar”, with its subject matter and formal dexterity, has attracted generations of interpreters puzzling out its language, structure, meaning, ambiguities and silences. Pat Righelato, in her chapter “Wallace Stevens” in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, sees the poem as an admonition against the “expansionist consciousness”, or what Quentin Andersen called the “imperial self”, in his book with the same title, of the “all-incorporating” writer who has arguably remained the mainstay of American letters since Ralph Waldo Emerson. The imperial self allows Emerson, identified by Andersen as the progenitor and archetype of the all-incorporating writer, to say he could stand on bare ground with his head “bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, I become a transparent eyeball….I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” The seemingly impersonal poems of Stevens, including “Anecdote of the Jar”, do not allow, in Righelato’s opinion, for such romantic eye’s possessiveness or “narrative lift-off” at the end.
Perhaps. This does not, however, mean that agency now inheres in nature; it is merely transferred to human contrivance, the jar. The poem’s title “Anecdote of the Jar” does not reference the landscape, and in the main body of the poem the jar is overarching. It is “round”, “tall and of a port”, takes over, tames, or civilises the surrounding “slovenly”, disordered horizontal space: “The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild… It took dominion everywhere.” It resembles as such Ernst Bloch’s technology which “stands in nature like an army of occupation in enemy territory”. The jar’s effect is sealed by formal elements, especially the repetition of the jar’s property, “round” (sur-round, a-round, g-round). It is as if the poet subscribes to the theory of technological determinism and watches with disinterest as his surrogate takes on a life of its own and becomes the imperial instrument of colonisation.
Subsequent ecocritical readings have detected regret or reversal of position as the poet goes back to the driver’s seat in the last stanza and pronounces, “The jar was gray and bare/ It did not give of bird or bush/ Like nothing else in Tennessee.” If Stevens cherished ambiguity, as he was wont to do in his poetry, Serra’s sculpture is laid out in a straight line, without angles or curves that might intimate second thoughts. Neither poet nor artist, on the other hand, seem willing or able to abjure the much criticised Cartesian dualism of mind/body or human/ non-human things and nature, and conceive of reality as the orchestration of all the players.
Like other works of Minimalism, Serra’s have been celebrated, receiving accolades, especially among museum curators and journalists. They have been accorded mixed reviews by art critics, ranging from high praise to excoriation and occasional rejection by the public. Chave, for instance, found them domineering, reinforcing masculine values of power and detachment. The desert piece has been reported with little comment, except by the artist himself and by admiring reporters; it is fairly new, and tucked away in a remote corner for those who might otherwise be interested in writing about it. Unless, like me, they happen to be passing by. Serra has given statements to The New Yorker magazine and the British newspaper The Independent from which we can glimpse how he perceives his sculpture, the context and circumstances in which he was commissioned to do it, and how he went about designing it. The sculptor had already been working in Qatar for several years, on a piece titled “7”. It stands in downtown Doha next to the beautiful Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), designed by IM Pei. The MIA combines the angular walls of the Museum of Modern Art in Washington, also designed by Pei, with the curves and arches of Islamic buildings he saw on study trips to various Middle Eastern cities.
Serra, who chafes at being regarded an architect rather than an artist, was asked by the Qatar Museum Authority, headed by Shaykha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, for a sculpture in the desert. Shaykha Al-Mayassa, the daughter of the former Emir, commands an annual art budget of $1 billion, and was named by Art Review in 2013 as the most “powerful” person in the art world. Serra thought of himself as a Westerner making a cultural contribution to the East, hence “West-East” in the title. The inclusion of a personal reference is a departure from his previous titles. Apart from harking back to discredited Orientalism and oversimplifying the concept of culture, his self-presentation as a Westerner making a cultural contribution to Easterners is oblivious to the fact that his “7” sits next to Pei’s structure, which combines the heritage of Islamic art and Modernity, or that Europe and the United States had tried earlier to endow their own landscapes with history and the sacred by placing in them structures that emulated those from ancient civilisations, that is when not actually commandeering the originals. In Washington, for instance, where this essay is being written, the Capitol Building, which houses the US Congress, was inspired by Greek and Roman styles, and George Washington’s Monument is but a bland copy of a Pharaonic obelisk.
The Qatari desert is perceived by Serra as a wild frontier, and he likens it to “John Ford country…minus the romanticism of the Utah plateaus”. That moniker, “John Ford country”, was given to the Utah territory because it had been the site of several Westerns, including Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) about the colonial expansion and the war against various American Indian tribes. Stagecoach depicted the Apache Indians as relentlessly aggressive, attempting to impede the march of civilisation. Although the film casts a sceptical look at what civilisation did to the whites themselves, its last scene depicts the Indians fleeing with the subtitle, “Saved from Civilisation”.
The desert may seem “wild” to an urban person like Serra, who said he had never before worked in one, but not to its inhabitants. In his many trips to study the location he was accompanied by a nameless Bedouin man who “knew every foot of every desert”. The excursions and native guidance did not alter the sculptor’s opinion, and the desert remained “mysterious…an undifferentiated space”. His piece “collects” the space and “makes a place within the space”, a vision that uncannily echoes Stevens’ the “wilderness rose up to it, no longer wild.” The desert space was gathered by the sculpture and made a “place”, a construct that connotes domestication; we say someone is “out of place” to indicate an outsider status.
Wilderness rose up to Stevens’ jar by virtue of the authority of its human design, its round form and tallness. How does the sculpture gather space? The at surfaces and rustic colour blend unobtrusively with the desert landscape. But the machine-forged metal, the linear shape and layout, the sharp angles and the great height all contrast with the desert and imbue the plates with the power to “take dominion everywhere”. The columns not only pull the space together, they also partition it, as humans divide the earth into longitudes and latitudes, leading us to believe it belongs to us rather than we to it.
Further, the sculpture “deals with duration and time during walking and looking and that the walker can measure himself against the rise and fall of the landscape”. This sounds like a simplistic version of an earlier piece by Serra, “Torqued Ellipses”, with its complex curves and spaces where a person may feel he is going through canyons and ravines while walking inside and around the various pieces in a gallery. The desert itself is also reduced by the artist’s reckoning to a curved space; left out are the rocks and dunes, the transient wind and rain and sandstorms, the animals and birds that dwell in it, and the facts and effects of human exploitation and history. The reduction may be necessary for Serra’s type of sculpture but it straitjackets the desert into his own style and turns it into a background instead of a locus. It steals the desert’s thunder, as it were. Nowhere is this slice of nature granted aesthetic agency, it is passive, acted upon, not an actor.
Yet had Serra placed his steel plates along the highway instead of in the middle of the desert, the viewer would most likely guess they were installed by Qatar Gas or some construction firm. In other words, it is the desert first and foremost that allows Serra to present this work as art. Because of the absence of traditional elements of “beauty” and the touch of the sculptor’s hands, the piece anchors its claim to artistry, like Minimalism in general, in its idea or concept, a view of art sometimes traced back to the “ready-made” of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious urinal. It would be interesting to find out whether people would deem the piece a sculpture in its present location without being told in advance, whether the complicity of the viewer is the result of prior advertisement.
After all his pronouncements about what his piece is and what it does, Serra demurs and shifts the privilege of judgment to the beholder. Greater Doha, which is Qatar in so far as demography is concerned, is a city of less than 2.5 million people who hail from all continents, with a great majority from Asia and the Middle East. In other words, the population, even without considering markers such as class and age and gender, is culturally heterogeneous and so without a common notion of what constitutes art.
Hundreds of thousands of the country’s residents are also labourers who can hardly venture outside the city, for the lack of public transport, to Ras Brouq. Besides, the general state of discrimination and discouragement against the use of public space, especially for single men, is well known. Then there is the weather constraint; a person can walk the length of the sculpture in the burning sun perhaps only during three to four months of the year. Add to this, Asians and Middle Easterners do not on the whole consider walking a form of recreation and, when they do, they walk at a slow pace. The foregoing factors all limit the audience, which to begin with lacks a shared language or palate for art, not an insignificant drawback for a work intended as public art. It forces us to ask, for whom does Serra think he brought culture? Is his structure with its “limited vocabulary” of rectangular plates a common denominator, McArt?
The group I went with to see the work included a child who was impressed with the height and wanted her picture taken in its shadow; otherwise the choice was to walk up a nearby hill to scan a wider vista than we could from the lower elevation at the spot where the rst column was posted. Alas, we did not walk and experience the rise and fall of the landscape with the assistance of the sculpture, as Serra would have liked us to, and instead ful lled his apprehension: “I’d really like [this work] to be seen, and I don’t know if it will.”
Qatar launched in 2008 a “National Vision” for sustainable development, and the country’s Tourism Authority promotes Ras Brouq as an eco-tourism destination. One assumes that the Shaykha, a graduate of Duke University, was aware that along with Minimalism the art scene has seen the proliferation of eco art, a more ecologically-conscious type of land art that would comport with the government’s stated intentions. One of the most discussed pieces of eco art, and a mirror image of Serra’s desert piece, is Alan Sonfist’s “Time Landscape” in Manhattan. It is a sculpture in the form of a forest model of less than 250 square metres of trees, shrubs and grasses. Sonfist’s plants suggest growth and regeneration, linear and cyclical times. Whereas Serra wishes for “East-West” to be timeless, a witness to the rise and fall of human civilisations, as if it had arisen outside of them, and as if taking sculpture off the pedestal and making it site-specific was not meant in the first place to subvert the idea of eternal art.
Numerous examples could be cited of desert eco art more in tune with the environment than Serra’s, such as “Behold: Desert Breath” (Egypt, by DAST Arteam), “Dune Edge” (Namibia, by Nils-Udo), “Hand of the Desert” (Chile, by Mario Irarrázabal) and “Ancient Language” (also Chile, by Andrew Rogers). Although they are also monumental, perhaps a necessity in the vast desert expanse, they are biosculptures or geoglyphs made locally, and the first two disintegrate with the passage of a relatively short time. Eco art is not confined to sculpture; it includes installations, photography, performance, maps, texts and combinations thereof. Its practitioners strive to use bio-degradable and discarded material and to avoid masculine gestures of power and dominance, may opt for the ephemeral rather than the lasting, are not averse to beauty and even humour, and could deploy the work for environmental action. In sum, eco art takes an ethical stance toward nature that does not give humans precedence over it, without having to sacrifice aesthetics.
In Ras Brouq, wealth, fame, ambition and steel could not let in Stevens’ hesitation and ambiguity. They combined instead to produce a drab, colossal sculpture that is not of the desert though it seizes a relatively large area of it in a tiny country, a sculpture that will be “seen” by a limited number of visitors with disparate cultures. Maybe the multitude of fans anticipated to descend on Qatar for the 2022 World Cup will find the time between games for eco-tours and make up for the paucity of viewers.
This essay was published in The Indian Quarterly.