SB Nation

David Roth | December 17, 2013

Qatar Chronicles

Part II, Buying a masterpiece

David Roth traveled to Qatar for a closer look at the World Cup's future home. Below is the second installment of his five-part series.

Previously: Part I, Destination everywhere.

★ ★ ★

On the first bleary trip into the city, in a cab that sped me along the Corniche to what turned out to be the wrong hotel, the cheerful-seeming cabbie pointed out various things. There on the left, watched over by no fewer than 11 towering construction cranes, was the glass-clad desert rose of the Qatar National Museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, half-bloomed already and open sometime in 2014. Then on the right: the Museum of Islamic Art, lit by searing spotlights planted on green lawn. And near that, a massive box that seems to be wearing the signature multicolored dots of... wow, no, that really is a giant exhibition of the British artist Damien Hirst, in the Al Riwaq exhibition hall.

Hirst is famous for his bisected cows sealed in lucite, his massive sharks floating in formaldehyde, his various installation pieces made of prescription pills and diamonds and dead butterflies and living flies and various forms of meat. Thoughts on how good those works are or aren't vary from observer to observer. Their general assaultive garishness is universally agreed upon, though, and they have, either despite that or because of it, been among the most expensive pieces of art sold anywhere in the world over the last two decades. It makes sense that they'd be in Qatar, and also it really does not.

It makes sense that they'd be in Qatar, and also it really does not.
Damienhurstsharkie_mediumDamien Hirst's formaldehyded shark. (David Roth)

Because I had barely slept over the course of two long flights, and because I was so startled to see this towering polka-dot art hangar dedicated to this particular artist, I must have said something about it to the driver. Either he didn't quite understand what I was saying or didn't feel like sharing his opinion on Damien Hirst, either of which would have been reasonable. He answered back, "in Doha, everything is new, new, NEW."

Which is a non-sequitur, but also both true and actually a pretty good answer to someone wondering what a comprehensive exhibition of one of the art world's most relentless provocateurs -- or "provocateur" or ex-provocateur, I'm not telling you what to think about this dude and his multimillion dollar formaldehyded sharks -- is doing in a traditional and conservative country. This exhibition is new, after all, and it will not become old.

Something else by someone else, some other artist of international renown will be in that big space in a month or so. That will be new, too. It will be a very handsomely mounted and thoughtfully curated exhibition, just as the Hirst exhibition was very handsomely etc, and it will also be big. It will also, like all museums in Doha, be free to visit.

And people will visit. The nearby Museum of Islamic Art is the showpiece, a big sand-colored cathedral of a place designed by the architect I.M. Pei. It's nearly windowless and, on the inside, cooled seemingly less by air conditioning than the hushed temple chill that seems naturally to attach itself to such places. It is only five years old, but owing to the ambition of both its aesthetics and mission -- nothing less than relating a thousand or so years of Islamic history through art -- there is a hallowed, austere hush about it already.

The art inside is old and beautiful, if abstracted in the way that very old things invariably are. Whatever critical intent or cultural significance or satire or other subtext was or was not once attached by this unnamed 13th century Iraqi artist to this statue of an impish monkey in what appears to be a hat, was lost long ago. What's left is interesting enough -- it's a mischievous monkey in a hat, it will always work -- to attract a large and varied crowd to the museum.

This one looked like the Qatar that Qatar would like us to see.

Where things were notably paler at the Hirst exhibition, this one looked like Qatar, or like the Qatar that Qatar would like us to see. Women in niqabs moved in quiet, whooshing groups or laughing pairs or pushed twisting, burbling kids in strollers; it's anecdotal, but I observed that Fendi handbags have penetrated this particular market segment to an impressive degree.

There are also men in traditional white dishdasha and men in casual clothes; women in head scarves or more conservative abayas or even-more-conservative niqabs or full burqas. There are Germans and sun-crisped Brits, because it is a museum in a foreign country and so of course there are. And there I am, too, gulping water and a little hungry and fresh off a dual-language chastisement -- in English and then (a little show-offily, I thought) in German -- for attempting to enter the museum through the wrong entrance. I look at the calligraphy for a while, the beautiful ripple and rise that comprise words that have been written and rewritten for a thousand years and more, the subtleties that make the letters beautiful. I wonder if I'm seeing it.

This is Qatar, and so there is a restaurant on the fifth floor by Alain Ducasse, a French chef whose golden-fingerbowl approach to fine dining was too high-toned for Manhattan even during the turn-of-the-century boom years.

In the rotunda there are the sounds of voices doing that museum mutter that people do, in various different languages. Also a tour group starting out (in English) and little reports of kid-noise; whining and sudden exultations and high laughs, the usual sort of thing. Little kids slide giddily on the slick stone floors. Look through the narrow window that looks out the back of the museum and onto the Arabian Sea and there is a towering Richard Serra sculpture on a spit of land that sticks out into the green water. There is also, faintly and small as a toy, the buzzing back-and-forth of someone skipping a Jet Ski through the museum's artificial moat. When you've had enough, you can leave.

★ ★ ★

There are more than two ways of thinking about art, but two useful ways to think about it are as something people make and something people consume. They are fundamentally connected and interdependent, obviously. But it is, for a variety of reasons, somehow easier and more pleasant to think about the former than it is the latter.

This tension is reflected and refracted through all types of human expression, sports very much included. We as humans enjoy being surprised and moved and shown things that we hadn't previously seen, or things that helped us to see, in the everyday familiar, little kindlings of grace or transcendence that had previously been hidden. We watch the things we watch (or listen to what we listen to, or do what we do or go where we go) to find this sort of startlement. As well we might.

What would you really want to spend money on if not something that makes you think and feel things you otherwise wouldn’t, or couldn’t?

It's generally to our credit that we know this sort of thing has value, and are willing to pay for the privilege of being transported and surprised. We are willing, sometimes, to pay quite a lot. Again, this is pretty excellent of us, and one of those human behaviors that both makes sense and is sort of reassuring. More urgent material essentials aside, what would you really want to spend money on if not something that makes you think and feel things you otherwise wouldn't, or couldn't?

But there's a difference, in magnitude of expenditure but also just a difference, between spending money on museum admission and spending money on art. In the notably cool Al Markhiya Gallery, down an alley from a Yemeni restaurant in Doha's Souk Wakif, two Qatari artists had mounted a show of very distinguished, and expensive, paintings. The gallery aims to showcase the work of young and Qatari artists whenever possible. Most had sold, despite prices ranging north of 60,000 Qatari Riyals, which is more than $16,000. I talked to Addis, a graphic designer for the gallery and Qatar native whose resemblance to former Top Chef contestant Sheldon Simeon gave him an instant shortcut into my heart.

"You'd think more would sell to Qatari buyers, because this is Qatar," he laughed. "They can afford it." But instead, he said, most of the work is sold to "people from outside," he said. "Lot of Scandinavians."

What do Qatari buy, I asked him.

He laughed again. "Phones! And credit."

★ ★ ★

Miaqatar_mediumMuseum of Islamic Art (Getty Images)

In November, the New Yorker ran an inexplicably fascinating feature about the Swiss-born, New York-based gallerist and art dealer David Zwirner, who recently sold a triptych by the painter Francis Bacon for a record $146 million. What's interesting about the article, though, is less the massive figures quoted and more its exposure of how the art market works -- as an unregulated and, unsurprisingly, often unethical and wildly speculative global trade between the supremely rich. The assets in play happen to be some of the greatest treasures of our shared human heritage, but again: what's more valuable, or more readily bought and sold, than that?

After that historic sale, the New York Post quoted an unnamed source attesting that the unknown private buyer for the $146 million triptych was Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, a 30-year-old Qatari. She wasn't, as it turned out; this is the Post we're talking about. But it wasn't a bad guess.

The QMA spent 30 times what New York City's Museum of Modern Art did in 2013.

The Sheikha, who is the sister of Qatar's emir, is the head of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), and oversees an annual budget estimated to be around $1 billion. The New Yorker article notes that Zwirner was recently named the second-most influential person in the art world by ArtReview; Sheikha Al Mayassa was first. She wears the traditional black abaya, is a Duke graduate with an advanced degree from Columbia, and gave a TED Talk called "Globalizing the Local, Localizing the Global" in 2010. She oversaw the QMA's purchase of one of the prescription pill installations on display at the Al Riwaqh Hearst retrospective; it cost $20 million. No one in the art world spends nearly as much money as the sheikha does. No one can. The QMA spent 30 times what New York City's Museum of Modern Art did in 2013.

The Sheikha has bought pieces of art that the QMA doesn't show in Qatar, and pieces it can't show in Qatar. Though it was planned as a permanent piece of public art when the QMA purchased it, the Algerian-born artist Adel Abdessemed's "Coup de Tete" -- a massive sculpture depicting Zinedine Zidane's infamous World Cup headbutt of Marco Materazzi -- lasted just a little over three weeks on Doha's Corniche before being taken down. Qataris complained that it violated an Islamic tenet that forbids the depiction of humans and animals in statues. The argument was that the statue was idolatry, and it was an argument the QMA had no choice but to accept. Think of the whole affair, maybe, as the Yankees spending a bunch of money on Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano some years ago -- an expensive miss, to be sure, but one remedied easily and swiftly enough with another purchase of similar size.

"As the art market and art scene generally has globalised, we are seeing a dominance of that sense of art as being something that is exchanged," ArtReview editor Mark Sappolt told The Guardian. "What's happening with Qatar epitomises that. It is symptomatic of a trend that you can have someone buying up western art, importing it to what is essentially the middle of the desert."

To bring the World Cup to Qatar, the emir is prepared to spend hundreds of times what his sister spends on art; one estimate places the total associated costs at around $220 billion, with a fucking B. The same principle applies, broadly, to both endeavors. And while soccer is not a western art form -- it belongs to the world; some things are true even if Sepp Blatter says them -- Qatar's hugely expensive, ethically suspect and generally queasy procurement of the 2022 World Cup reflects the same general trend. It's not a new thing, really: what is for sale will be sold, for as much as possible and to whoever values it the most. And, tautology of tautologies, what is most valuable is what's most valuable.

★ ★ ★

After dinner in Souk Wakif -- more about this later, but it's a new simulacrum of a traditional Arabian market built, with occasionally obvious Disneyfied detail, on the footprint of Doha's vanished original standing souk -- I went back to visit 7, the Richard Serra sculpture that towered, twisted and dramatically lit, out on that long finger of land in the park built around the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). It's the tallest sculpture that Serra ever made, seven twisting panels of thick oxidizing steel that present as a closed column from afar but which is, like many of Serra's sculptures, actually open for viewers to enter.

Soukwakif_mediumSouk Wakif (David Roth)

It is, also typically for Serra's pieces, a weird and warping thing to be within -- the sky appears and disappears at various points, closing on a narrow septagon at the top. It is warm and close there at the bottom of the silo, as the steel holds onto the heat of the day even hours after sunset. It was balmy and beautiful all that day -- all throughout my visit, in fact; there was no sense of how furiously, ridiculously and relentlessly hot it is in Qatar for most of the year. I could only imagine how the whole thing would shimmer during Qatar's long summer, when the average temperature sits around 106 degrees.

Late in the afternoon, the park around MIA filled quickly with families and kids. Lush green grass -- the springy, mossy kind you'll find on golf courses in South Carolina -- does not really belong in this climate, but an ambitious enough sprinkler system can put it anywhere. It's almost everywhere along the Corniche. As the big black plastic "superbales" of peat moss and teams of jumpsuited laborers working in clouds of dust and car exhaust will attest, that grass will soon be everywhere along the Corniche that it presently is not.

MIA Park's lawns undulate and roll, which makes a proper soccer game difficult to get going. On the positive side, the green space is vast enough to fit a bunch of overlapping, hugely improper games. Pudgy and spindly and otherwise kid-shaped kids in Messi jerseys chase pudgy kids in different Messi jerseys. Dads in dad attire are in the game, too, directing traffic and making sure the smaller kids -- boys and girls both, tear-assing around in sneakers that light up with each footfall, or barefoot -- get some touches. I sat on the faintly damp tangle and watched and then closed my eyes for a while. A little kid dropped a woman's shoe a few feet to my left and smiled. He paced off several steps and dropped its partner. This would be a goal; I was on the field of play.

Those games were over after dark, although some of the tables families had set up hours earlier were still there, still wreathed in conversation. In the lamplight along the path out to the sculpture there were middle-school kids on bikes, at loose ends as middle-school kids invariably are. There were other kids attempting to fancy dribble and stutter-step past their buddies. There were young couples in casual western-style clothes or variously austere traditional garb, walking to the point and back, hand in hand or arm in arm or at a modest distance. (Or both looking down at their phones.)

This is the image you've seen of Doha, all ultramodern skyscrapers filigreed and bright and flashing with LED life.

There were a great many baby carriages, whether parked on the high berm beyond the cafe or in motion. The Arabian Sea was all around, flat as a fitted sheet and reflecting the glassy pulse of the West Bay skyline. This is the image you've seen of Doha, all ultramodern skyscrapers filigreed and bright and flashing with LED life. Stray cats, skinny and staring, skipped around on the rocks. Ancient-looking dhows were done up like Mumbai cabs, their little lights blinking out on the bay. Arabic pop dipped in and out of earshot, from the cafe and maybe the distant dhows, many of which have jarringly good sound systems. At the end of that narrowing piece of land was the Serra sculpture: steely and reaching, strange on the inside, still hot to the touch even in the dark.

★ ★ ★

And that is how I expected to end my day, happy if maybe a little lonesome for the simultaneous proximity to all that humanity and distance from the people with whom I generally share those moments. But, while walking back to the hotel, I heard what first sounded like impatient, beep-intensive traffic -- that is, sounded like Doha -- but eventually revealed itself as something else.

These were air horns, not car horns, and the more the rhythm of these wamp-wamp-wamps emerged, the more it became clear that they were coming from a soccer game. So I walked past the hotel and down an increasingly dingy avenue I'd wandered my first night in Doha, past industrial supply stores and dim small hotels and the garish Oscado Saloon, which was not a saloon but a salon whose young haircutters -- all sporting identical Drake-ish squared-off cuts -- hung over a rail smoking cigarettes.

And then a left along Al Muthaf Street. There were no more hotels. There was a shisha bar in which men smoked hookah dispassionately under fluorescent light; there was a far brighter Pakistani grocery. There were low dun-colored apartment blocks, nameless and with all the windows unlit, either abandoned or occupied by people who used them only for what hours of hard sleep they could get.

This neighborhood was it -- the place where the less well-paid foreign laborers lived, and how they lived.

This was what every service employee I talked to -- Pakistani, Filipino, Nepali, Kenyan, Indian, Ghanaian, Bangladeshi -- told me when I asked what they thought of Doha. "Only work," a Ghanaian cabbie said. "Work and sleep." A Filipino cabdriver, blasting a homemade CD of Queen songs, bemoaned the lack of karaoke options. This neighborhood was it -- the place where the less well-paid foreign laborers lived, and how they lived. A place to sleep and maybe eat, quietly and out of the way. The streets were dusty and tired. A woman in an abaya, her sleeping daughter slung over her shoulder, climbed grim yellow steps into an apartment building. An airplane roared up over the rooftops, huge and shockingly close.

The drums and air horns were loud at this point, and I was following them toward the lights of what I saw, now, was a small green stadium built right up to the sidewalk. This was Doha Sports Stadium, and it was less impressive than it sounds. It was a cinder-block oval, faded and slouched, with a balding green rectangle at its center.

It was, also, crushingly and implausibly full. If ticket-takers had ever been at the gates, they'd long since gone home; the match was nearly over, and not only the concrete bleachers but the concourse down to the sidewalk was choked with shoulder-to-shoulder dudes. I craned and tiptoed and saw players sitting on the field, watched by somewhere between 2,000 and 200,000 men. I tiptoed again and saw a player doink a penalty kick off a crossbar. I asked the man to my left what teams these were, and he told me they were from India. This was as much as I ever learned; the score was not in the Doha papers.

I do know how the match ended, though. After the missed kick, some spectators left. Another fan invited me to stand next to him on the bleachers and I scrambled up with his help. I watched the goalie dive to the right and the kicker calmly roll the ball left. "Weeeeeen Yellow!" my bleacher buddy said, and patted me on the back. Air horns wamp-ed without cease. Drums, too, or whatever was being used as drums -- there were too many men to see who was even making the noise, besides everyone. Team Yellow mobbed itself in the far corner.

I thanked everyone in sight, reflexively, and floated up and out in the crowd, amid smiles and emphatic conversations in dialect. This is not the sort of soccer experience that the Al Thani family will spend 12 figures to bring to the country in 2022. These also are not the people who will make noise at those games, although when the games come the men in Doha Sports Stadium or men like them will bring those visitors tea and turn down their beds and drive them to and from the new airport. They will take tickets on the metro system that Qatar is building for the World Cup. They will do most everything, because that is how it works over there.

This was the same game that would bring all those people to Qatar, of course, but also different. What the emir is buying from FIFA is a complicated investment product, which can indeed be bought and brought to the middle of the desert without any diminution in value. It is a thing traded among very rich people, like art or any other commodity.

This is not an idle comparison. Art has value because it has value; Qatar's whole brave, fraught investment in the World Cup has no value if not for the game that brought all those tired men to the Doha Sports Stadium that night. But the game, by itself, is just one of the world's favorite things to do; the World Cup is not just soccer. And anyway Qatar is not just buying the World Cup. It's an investment, like every dollar the nation spends on any other masterpiece.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Design: Josh Laincz | Editor: Spencer Hall

About the Author

David Roth was a columnist for and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.