Stavroula Golfomitsou – the role of conservation in the new contemporary art installation in new contexts: The case of Richard Serra’s East-West / West-East in Qatar

Qatar’s art market is currently booming with the local government keen to acquire and exhibit contemporary art in public spaces, to encourage cultural diversity and to engage with the surrounding landscape. Golfomitsou discussed how Qatar, despite having a lot of money to acquire the art, has no long-term plan or established practice when it comes to the installation of these pieces; a seemingly more and more common occurrence within the art world.

Golfomitsou used the example of Richard Serra’s "East-West / West-East," a large series of steel alloy plates, each submerged in concrete, 2km outside of Qatar in the dessert. Placed in such conditions, these sculptures are exposed to extremes in humidity, temperatures, the constant sand abrasion and physical damage from visitors; it comes as little or no surprise that there is now active corrosion on the sculptures.

The question of ‘how long’ popped up again at the conference. The artist, Serra, commented that he believed the pieces would have a ‘good shelf life’, but Golfomitsou asked, what is the shelf life for modern art? I wondered if all contemporary art should be thought of as replaceable or should we take action before installation, if we know change will happen? In the case of Serra’s work, Golfomitsou decided this is not appropriate due to the cost, but the real issue is behind the scenes. I wondered, is it really ethical to install artwork without the forethought of how they will decay and how an institute - or in this case a government - can have a strategic plan to think of the collection care of the pieces? We know an art gallery or museum would struggle with these ethical issues, but who are councils and governments accountable to? With no conservators within the government department and the cost of repair beyond any available budget, I had to agree with Golfomitsou that conservators seem to be powerless in Qatar, however I believe she is not alone.

Questions from the floor suggested working with the artist from the beginning to develop a patina that would have been realistic for the environment before installation. This would have been an idealistic approach, but Golfomitsou reiterated that Serra wanted to watch the patina develop over time. Despite the harsh conditions and the unrealistic idea that a natural patina could have developed within these conditions, the artist did not change his mind. Also, the alloys used in the sheets changed over the manufacturing period.

Post by Sarah Potter