By Anand Holla
If one wanted to get a hang of Qatar’s unmistakable propensity towards art in the recent years, scouring through Doha’s well-stocked art galleries or museums wouldn’t even be necessary. A walk through its streets would suffice.
The sheer omnipresence of public art in the city is impressive, and the list is rather long. Sabah Arbilli’s stainless steel calligraphic installation sits solid on the Corniche, jazzing up the bayside with its fascinating design.
Moreover, it is inspired by a line from a poem penned by the country’s founder, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani: “And amongst the sultans I stood out; as a lanneret floating over mountain peaks.”
The Miraculous Journey by Damien Hirst; a series of 14 monumental bronze sculptures, in front of Sidra Medical Centre, never stopped fuelling conversations. Chronicling the gestation of a foetus inside a uterus, from conception to birth, it ends with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy.
Be it along the tunnels of Salwa Road, around the vast stretches of Aspire Park, or the many roundabouts identified by the works of art nestled in their centres, public art in Qatar has been compelling the local community to think, talk and debate art like it was never thought possible.
It makes sense then that an undergraduate research experience programme titled The Role of Public Art in Doha’s Contemporary Urban Realm, has been exploring the role and context of public art in Doha.
The research is funded by Qatar National Research Fund, and is helmed by Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Qatar University, College of Engineering, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Grichting is mentoring the three students – Sara al-Sada from Qatar, Angelica Marie Caccam from the Phillipines, and Urshi Afruna Khan from Bangladesh – whose research aims to investigate how public art is transforming public space and public culture in contemporary Qatar, from the perspectives of both architecture and design.
“The idea for this project was born out of Qatar’s drive to bring international and renowned artists to create and implement work in the public space here. I thought it was a great opportunity for us to do some research around this and expose the students to public art and public space,” says Grichting, as she and her students gather for a chat at a café.
Since a vital element of public art is the impact it has on the community, this research “examines the process of implementing site-specific artworks, looking at questions of scale, history, social meaning and formal aesthetics.”
Al-Sada says, “The most interesting part about public art is how works of art in public space affect people’s behaviours and interest towards those spaces and buildings. It makes me wonder that perhaps, we can create a new public space around some art pieces.”
Grichting, who teaches architecture and allied art, along with urban planning and design, says she likes to focus on how art exists in the public realm. “So when architects are designing buildings, they also learn about how they can integrate art into the inside and outside spaces,” she says.
With the inherent power that the public art possesses to provoke, al-Sada, Caccam and Khan are keen on gathering reactions through the Facebook page and blog they have set up by the same name as the research title.
“Through these, we are trying to engage in a dialogue with the community,” Khan says, referring to the many reactions that, for instance, Adel Abdessemed’s bronze sculpture depicting Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutting of Italy’s Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final, fetched.
Last year, when noted American sculptor Richard Serra visited Qatar for the unveiling of his East-West/West-East installation near Zikreet, and the launch of his major solo exhibition at Al Riwaq, the girls got a chance to meet the master. “A lot of people were trying to get their books signed, but Serra was really interested in the students. He really liked interacting with them,” Grichting says, throwing a look at the beaming girls.
For Caccam, the biggest high of the project has been meeting Serra and visiting his works. “I especially loved Passage of Time at Al Riwaq. When I had visited a Japanese artist’s exhibition there before, the space felt different, like it was created for that artist’s works,” says Caccam.
“But when I saw it again during Serra, I saw how the space had totally changed for Passage of Time, which was made of two parallel walls of curved steel. Visitors could walk both around it and through it. It was the art that had created a new space for people to move around.”
Grichting seconds Caccam. “As a piece of public art, 7, a cluster of seven steel plates that stands at the end of the Museum of Islamic Art Park, is stunning. You understand its significance when you reach there and see the Museum to your left and the skyline over to your right. That’s when you understand the kind of scale that Serra is working with. The fact that his works draw from the concept of gravity must definitely interest architects.”
“So, with so many stellar artists coming in, students, here in Qatar, have this amazing opportunity to meet them,” Grichting continues, “When I was a student, back in Switzerland, my professors would tell me about Serra but I was not fortunate enough to meet him. I am trying to get the students to benefit from the explosion of contemporary art in Qatar. Also, I don’t think they often realise how lucky they are.”
For their research, the girls say that the methodologies undertaken will combine theoretical research on the understanding of public art and its role and placement in public space, as well as historical research on the evolution of art in the public spaces of the emerging metropolis of Doha.
“Surveys and interviews will also be carried out in different segments of the contemporary Qatari society, including all nationalities and social groups, to measure and qualify the impacts and effects on the population. Social media will be used to gather data and input from the public,” they say.
By leafing through the existing literature on Public Art, documents of policies of cultural development according to Qatar National Vision 2030, publications on historical and contemporary Public Art practices and projects in Qatar, the girls hope to assimilate the big picture story of public art in Doha.
Khan says, “Sometimes, the art may not necessarily be relevant to the space it is set in, like Arbilli’s at the Corniche, and yet by itself, it defines the whole space it sits in. However, The Miraculous Journey is also defined by its setting because it’s in front of Sidra Medical Centre, which is dedicated to women and children.”
Caccam loves The Miraculous Journey for the intense reactions it evoked from people. “Some thought it was too much, and some thought it was okay,” Caccam says.
In the end, they also want to create a sort of interactive public art map, which will profile the art and the artists, and hopefully generate more awareness and interest among people. Al-Sada says, “Soon, we will be attending an architecture conference in Dubai to share our project. The whole idea is to learn something.”
Grichting says that in the next phase of expanding the research, they are considering talking to Ashghal and those who installed the first of the public art works in Qatar. “We will browse through newspaper archives to see how the media covered the installation of these public art pieces and how people had reacted, in probably the 1980s, when public art began here,” Grichting says.
All in all, the research promises to be a terrific starting point, feels Grichting. “Students or the general public don’t necessarily go to museums or art galleries. Perhaps some of them can’t go. In any case, museums aren’t always inclusive spaces. Public art is,” she says.
“The Arbilli sculpture on the Corniche, for instance, is always accessible. When you see it a lot of times, during sunrise, during sunset, and interact with it over months and years, you develop some relationship with it,” Grichting points out, “That work of art becomes something, a landmark or some sort of punctuation in life. That’s just one of the many charms of public art.”
By Anand Holla