Last week was Qatar’s biggest for art. The Gulf state – oil rich and acquisitive with it – has spent billions on big museums designed by famous architects that it’s filling with expensive art and antiquities.
From the Hajj to Damien Hirst, it was a week of eyeball-pleasing firsts, launches, bright lights, red carpets and benevolent sheikhas bestowing cultural gifts for their fellow Qataris, the region as a whole and an impressive roster of international guests, journalists and dignitaries. (I love the word “dignitaries”.)
So there we all were, lined up on a grandstand in front of the yet-to-open Sidra medical centre, where 14 huge balloon-shaped dust sheets shielded a huge piece of public art from the unwavering attention of the 40C sun and rubber-necking motorists. With a reading from the Quran and a bit of bombastic son et lumière, Damien Hirst’s “The Miraculous Journey” was unveiled, to gasps, applause and widespread iPhone panning shots. 14 gargantuan bronzes depicting the journey from nothing to baby – “It’s a boy!” shouted one wag, sitting not unadjacent to this desk.
Having been conceived (the sculptures, that is) as a sketch by Hirst that was seen on a visit by Qatar’s Sheikha Mayassa to the artist’s studio – hey presto! – one of the grandest, heaviest (and, you’d think, costliest) pieces of commissioned public art in the world was born. (Incidentally, the Qatar air force was thanked in dispatches, presumably for transporting the pieces from Hirst’s foundry in Gloucestershire to Doha). Big, bold, bronze and unabashed in its anatomical precision, this work may take a time to bed in with conservative local consensus and arguments about whether the figurative is allowed in Islam. Brave then, too.
Soon the red carpet would be rolled out for more of Hirst’s oeuvre, although these – apart from a handful of new works – were the artist’s greatest hits: it’s the biggest ever Hirst retrospective. The show is called Relics and riffs on the show presented at London’s Tate Modern last autumn, differing in that curator Francesco Bonami has performed a couple of neat little switcheroos that make the Qatari show that bit more satisfying.
Do you know what really makes it a satisfying show? How good Hirst’s work is. No stopping of the presses there, sure, but a lot of the wonder of the work is lost among the talk of the art market and the fact that this show’s happening in Doha – home, some say, of filthy lucre. But that all seems so boring when you see “Mother and Child (Divided)”, “Away From the Flock”, “Loving in a World of Desire” (an air-lifted beach ball hovering perilously in mid-air) and the perfect installation piece “A Thousand Years” (the flies, the cow head, the zapper). Even the much-maligned “For the Love of God” (the diamond skull), now with a brooding little brother, is given an ecclesiastical peace more than it possessed in its darkened room at the Tate.
What a week it was. The best was the Hirst and the most beautiful was IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art itself, a subtle yet solid mirage shimmering on the waterfront; a corniche away from the bombastic buldings in “new” Doha. Time will tell if the region really wants these palaces to offer western art, and the training of local staff in key curatorial positions might be a bit of a miraculous journey in itself. But where the spirit and the flesh are willing, you will want to go.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s culture editor.