|Richard Serra, The Matter of Time, 1994-2005|
In one of the most extraordinary museum displays of sculpture, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao permanently houses Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. The eight monumental torqued spirals span the range of Serra’s steel sculptures as they developed between 1994 and 2005. Walking the sculptural field on the museum’s ground floor, we move through self-standing Corten steel torqued ellipses, highly complex snaking ribbons, ending up inside the torqued toruses. The terracotta patina of the earlier pieces makes their skin warm and inviting from a distance, but often visually unremarkable up close. By the end of our journey through the sculptures we are surrounded by the impressed steel toruses that have not weathered. But it is not their visual appearance that makes these sculptures magnificent. It is true that they deliberately challenge our notions of art and sculpture, of the possibilities of steel as a medium, as well as our preconceptions of how both function in space. But they are not only sculptures to look at; their real challenge comes to our corporeal identities, our sense of stability, and thus, our very notion of ourselves as human beings.
|Richard Serra, Torqued Spiral Closed Open Closed Open Closed, 2003-2004|
Ironically, however, the museum has an aggressive, visitor un-friendly surveillance policy that, if it were consistently obeyed, would prohibit visitors from experiencing the full effects of the sculptures. If the museum had its way, the sculptures are not to be touched, photographed or interacted with in any way. Potentially, well-behaved visitors would then be left wondering what these steel slabs are meant to be about. Contrary to the Guggenheim’s instructions, Serra’s are works to be touched, caressed, leant on and tantalized with our fingers and toes. The weathering Corten steel is at its most awe-inspiring only when we interact with it, physically, intellectually, and emotionally, all at once.
|Richard Serra, Snake, 1994-1997|
From the outset, I have to say that everyone’s experience of Richard Serra’s sculptures is unique. Because meaning comes from an ongoing relationship with them, over time, interpretation depends on how we interact, in what time, at what pace, and how we are feeling on any given day. That said, there is something pure and intense about everyone’s experience of The Matter of Time because it is in the museum as opposed to out in public space. Thus, there are less variables. If we break the museum’s rules, we will go through a series of unsettling and perhaps disorienting experiences. Walking around the base of the torqued ellipses, as they move from falling in on us to away from us, as we move from being on their inside to being on their outside, we start to feel dizzy and nauseous. Lost inside the spiral, I felt a complete loss of balance and had to steady myself by reaching out to touch the side of the sculpture. And then, ready to start walking again, I felt protected by its steel walls. That is, until they changed direction, as in bent away rather than in on me. And then, shortly after regaining my balance, I felt vulnerable and challenged by their unpredictability. I became insecure thanks to their inability to sit still, to be reliable as a wall to lean on, the limit of a path to guide, or a dead end to stop my motion. And so, already, inside the first piece, I found myself in a tussle with it, seduced into a game of cat and mouse; moving, following, I got comfortable and the steel spirals de-stabilized me, threw me into disorientation.
I had never experienced the ribbons before—in fact, I am not sure that Serra has ever made other ribbons—and was skeptical that they would produce any effect. Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the passageway given me by the first ribbon, slowly bending with its curves. It wasn’t until I came out the other end that I realized its power. I thought I was going to vomit. I was nauseous and dizzy and had no desire whatsoever to go back through the second corridor of steel. I stumbled on to the next sculpture, another torqued ellipsis, and I became in turns afraid and convinced that the steel wall was going to fall in on me. I know very well that Serra’s monumental – or anti-monumental – steel structures are self-standing, single pieces of metal. And yet, the degree of the lean was so acute that I could became obsessed with the possibility of being flattened like the road runner. I lost all sense of security inside.
These works refer to nothing other than themselves, and even then, they deflect all attention onto our bodies. This is their challenge to our concept of art: they ultimately offer an experience of ourselves, in motion, and time, confronting us with our reliance on gravity, on the order of things as we know them. Similarly, they challenge our assumptions about being in the world, about what we know of the materials of construction in our world. Steel of that width is not meant to be torqued, Corten steel is not meant to be malleable, let alone lean inwards and then outwards without falling to the ground. Serra talks of the challenge to assumptions about steel, and about the propensity for the steel to be milled as he desires it. In interview he has related the early skepticism of engineers and the construction team for the sculptures to be made to his specifications. What they do with steel goes against all possibility—and therefore extends what is possible in steel.
I came away from The Matter of Time thinking of the buildings inside which we hide, inside which we order our lives, the offices, department stores, contemporary high rise apartment blocks, all of which are made of the same steel as Serra’s sculptures. We don’t ever think they will fall in on us, but why not? Surely the experience of the torqued sculptures is telling us something?
And so, I wonder at the Guggenheim Bilbao with its rigid viewing parameters. The museum as institution is intent on curtailing the experience in a way that defeats the purpose of these magnificent sculptures. They are everything that art is not – the experience is not only about looking, revering an art object. It’s about privileging the viewer, and letting the viewer’s experience unfold. Allowing us to explore the limits of who we are, and how we define ourselves in relationship to an unstable world. It’s difficult not to have a giggle at the Guggenheim with its assiduous need to control our experience of a series of sculptures that are, ultimately, all about the inherent inability of human beings to control their environment.
All images copyright Guggenheim Bilbao
All images copyright Guggenheim Bilbao