10 October 2013 – 22 January 2014
At the end of October 2013, my day job took me to Doha in Qatar, where I took the opportunity to stay with a good friend and research the culture in greater depth. This was primarily for the purpose of field research in advance of expanding the company’s operations there. As we took a car tour of the city, we drove passed the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) and the sight of the QM Gallery, Al Riwaq in front of MIA Park completely took me aback. I immediately made plans to return to the city that Christmas, for a personal visit, when I would spend a day at the gallery
Unusual for the Middle East, the Al Riwaq exhibition space has been built to exhibit controversial art. With that in mind, it’s not surprising to find the largest ever retrospective exhibition by Damien Hirst, the infamous English bad boy of art, and his first solo show in the Middle East.
My excitement of the visit had begun two months earlier having witnessed that Hirst had turned the external facade gallery into a spot painting. On my return, the huge piece of art tantalised us as we approached from a distance, then tormented us, when on our attempt to enter, we were told that all Qatar Museums were closed on a Tuesday. Revisiting on Boxing Day to an open gallery felt like an achievement in itself.
Having previously experienced Hirst’s work in London, I was impressed by the scale of this show. Never for the faint-hearted (although at one point, my friend was on the brink of being ill), Hirst’s work commands strong opinions from media and artists alike, of both admiration and loathing. Being in the appreciation camp, to visit this show and in the Gulf, felt like a cultural celebration.
Born in 1965 and leading the British modern art movement in the 80s and 90s, Hirst has delivered the morbid truth of life and death throughout his artistic career. Religion, life cycles and primary emotions form the foundations of his work and the viewer is continually hit by the realism of growth and decay.
Iconic pieces from Hirst’s most influential work were on display including the Spot Painting and the Natural History series (animals preserved in formaldehyde). I was interested to learn that Mother and Child has been remade since the first time I had seen it over a decade ago. For the Love of God and For Heaven’s Sake were also included as were the Ashtrays, Cigarette Cabinets, Butterfly Colour Paintings, Medicine Cabinets and Pill Cabinets and Pharmacy.
One of the most striking and memorable piece was A Thousand Years. In a glass tank thousands of flies buzz round a rotting dead cow’s head, that’s infested with maggots. Unapologetically, Hirst manifests life, death and decay in this disgusting but captivating living work.
With Doha located less than hour flight from Dubai, it’s a convenient destination for a regional city break with a visit to Al Riwaq thrown in as a cultural treat. For one, I shall be keeping an eye on the upcoming exhibitions and am thrilled that this quality of important and working artists has finally been brought to the region.