Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ruhr Valley Secrets, Richard Serra's Bramme für das Ruhrgebeit

One of the richest experiences of the Ruhr Valley has to be Richard Serra’s Bramme für das Ruhrgebeit (1998) in Altenessen. Somewhat difficult to find and to get to, Serra’s 14.5 meter high, 4.2 meter wide, 67 tonne steel plate sits atop a 30m high former slag heap from the coal mines in its environs. As such, it is defined by the identity of the Ruhr, and simultaneously functions to create a site in the Ruhr landscape. So typical of Richard Serra’s sculptures, the Bramme creates a site where none previously existed, literally, on the crest of a slag heap of the past. And simultaneously, Bramme, cast in steel, erect, but slightly at an angle, in the spirit of the horizon of chimneys below, overlooks an industrial landscape that is otherwise all but a spectre. The steel plate draws us to it, we are pulled into its magnetic-like field, and then as we reach it at the top of its hill, we turn away, it deflects attention away from itself, becoming something other than it is. As we stand before it, next to it, this majestic steel sculpture is transformed into a pointer that instructs us to look outwards, away from it, over the Ruhr from a position above, but fully integrated into that which is below. Once we have moved beyond its icon-like attraction, its angled stance entices us to look at it in relationship to what sits next to it, but only as these objects appear in our line of vision. It is solitary, alone on the hill, but as soon as we see it, we put it into a visual force field in which it becomes one component in a relationship to that which surrounds it – smoke stacks, chimneys, the hulks of former steel mining glory. Thus, it draws attention to the landscape of the Ruhr as a work of art. And likewise, this landscape defines it: it is made of steel, shaped like any other steel plate, its proportions, its placement, its identity are all integral to the world surrounding it.

Again, in typical Richard Serra style, this productive conversation between the steel form and its environment is experienced through more than one of the senses. It is not a relationship that is relegated solely to visual perception and deception. Bramme sheds a blanket of silence over the region, not just Essen below, but across the whole Ruhrgetbiet. And having done this, our attention becomes drawn by the silence it casts, to the sounds in the immediate environment as they echo across the 30m slag heap: a dog barking, his owner whistling to him, a child crying, boys exploring the landscape with a pickaxe.

Like a Greek temple at the top of the hill overlooking the city, we pilgrim toward it, compelled to know it and discover it and bask in its insights. And yet, unlike the temple, once we reach the Bramme there is nothing to see inside. In fact, we are prohibited from doing so, and our senses – visual, aural, tactile — are diverted such that we begin to contemplate the world outside, the world below, around and beneath it, the world that it nevertheless binds together.

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