Uterus sculptures by Damien Hirst on show at Qatar hospital

The open-air installation by British artist Damien Hirst is titled The Miraculous Journey and stands outside the Sidra Medicine Hospital.
The open-air installation by British artist Damien Hirst is titled The Miraculous Journey and stands outside the Sidra Medicine Hospital.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

DOHA • Fourteen giant bronze sculptures by British artist Damien Hirst graphically charting the moments from conception to birth greet patients arriving at a US$8-billion (S$11-billion) hospital in Gulf state Qatar.

The vast open-air installation, named The Miraculous Journey, shows a foetus growing in the womb and culminates in a 14m sculpture of a naked baby just after birth.

The monumental work is the centrepiece of a modern art collection at the Sidra Medicine Hospital, officially opened last week in Doha.

"We believe it reflects very much the mission of Sidra, taking care of the healthcare of women and babies," said Ms Layla Ibrahim Bacha, art specialist with the government-supported Qatar Foundation, which owns most of the artworks. "I think it's perfect for the location."

Among the 65 works at the speciality facility for children and women's health are pieces by high-profile international names and artists from across the Arab world, including Qatar.

A fourth-floor outpatient clinic is decorated with a neon installation titled I Listen To The Ocean And All I Hear Is You by Tracey Emin, one of Hirst's ground-breaking contemporaries from Britain.

Ms Bacha says the art was chosen with "very specific themes" in mind. "They are not meant to be decorative. They are meant to be creating debates, helping the patient to keep calm," she said.

Syrian artist Jaber al-Azmeh, whose pictures hang in the hospital, said it makes him "smile" to imagine his photographs on display in a place where new lives are starting.

Sidra began receiving its first patients in January. Last month, it successfully conducted Qatar's first operation to separate a pair of conjoined twins.

Energy-rich Qatar has become a major buyer of contemporary art.

It is seeking to portray itself as one of the most progressive states in the region against the backdrop of a bitter standoff with Gulf rivals led by Saudi Arabia.

But that does not mean there has not been controversy over the Hirst work towering outside the hospital.

The sculptures were originally unveiled in October 2013, but then covered from public view until recent weeks.

The official reason was to protect them from ongoing building work on the hospital, but they were concealed after a social media outcry.

"We are not expecting everyone to like them. We are not expecting everyone to understand them," said Ms Bacha. "This is why they are there to create this element of debate, this element of thinking."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2018, with the headline 'Uterus sculptures by Damien Hirst on show at Qatar hospital'. Print Edition | Subscribe