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Episode 8: Richard Serra, "Torqued Ellipses" (1996)

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There is a simple Japanese expression that encapsulates essentially all of Zen Buddhism: “the moon is not pleasing unless it is partially obscured by a cloud.”  In other words, true experience requires contrast.  You will never fully appreciate the keen brilliance of a full moon without the haze of a cloud.  You will never understand the muted haze of a cloud without the brilliance of a full moon.  Any opposite, the beautiful and the plain, even complementary colors on a color wheel, require one another in order to illuminate both to their greatest magnitude.  And achieving the reconciliation of these two juxtapositions, or at least achieving the ability to hold both opposites in your head at once, is considered enlightenment.  Or it just makes you Richard Serra.

Richard Serra works in contrasts.  You will never experience space more, and particularly your body in the space, than in relation to one of his sculptures.  You will never better understand your body’s manual override of your rational brain as it instinctually reacts to being destabilized, until you’re in the midst of a tilting steel ellipse.  And you will never appreciate, in his words, “the potential for what steel can be” until you’ve seen it bent into an elegant curve.

The experience of walking into any one of Dia Beacon’s four “Torqued Ellipses” is a fundamentally visceral experience.  These are giant rolls of steel, sheets 16 feet high and each weighing more than 20 tons.  They invite you in through a small opening, like walking into a slot canyon, the rusted orange patina reminiscent of a national park in Utah or Arizona, and therefore already blurring the boundaries between the natural and the manmade.  And as you walk in, you are immersed bodily.  They completely dwarf you.  You look up and the opening becomes a slit, and as it narrows, you begin to realize, first with your body, and then with your head, that the entire structure is tilting.  Just a bit—not nearly as significantly as it feels like.  But just enough.  Even those few degrees, and you’re trapped, the walls are suddenly closing in on you, you’re feeling squeezed and you start to hold your breath.  Even though you have enough room, you alter the position of your body to compensate, walking sideways and supporting yourself against the walls.  You marvel at the weird elasticity of steel, how something so rigid seems to be continuously bending to keep you confined, leaning towards you or away from you.  The path forward feels never ending and completely unknowable.

And then, suddenly, you’re inside.  And open never felt more open.  You start breathing again; you feel like you take up so much less space.  And what was a mystery is now completely revealed – you see the entire form of the ellipse in one glance.  You’re standing in the center of a massive steel circle with no clear escape, and yet it’s as open and airy as if you were standing in a field of dandelions.

Serra’s works invite you to search and discover continuously, not just intellectually, although it does – to wit, how can I reconcile industrial steel that evokes an organic curve? – but also in the physical experience of the ellipse itself.  The space between your optical and physical awareness blows a gasket.  Your body, independent from your head, is searching for stability, and to make some kind of meaning from this path that guides you so tightly it must be leading to something.  And when all is revealed, both your mind and body react.  You were never actually tilted, and the structure was never actually going to come down on you.  Most likely, the opening was big enough as you walked around that your body never even brushed the sides.  But the ground felt tenuous and untrustworthy.  And then you go from compression and claustrophobia, to whole deep breaths.  You feel your feet planted more solidly on the ground.  Meanwhile, your mind is looking to take in the whole space at once – it’s such a relief to know what it all added up to.

Serra delights in using space as a medium.  His work is well at home at Dia Beacon, in Beacon, New York, a museum devoted to the earthwork and process artists of the 1960s and 70s, most of whom shared the same concerns: huge dimension and scale beyond the museum (even Dia is a former Nabisco plant, the only size building that can accommodate the work).  It’s about taking exhausting processes and transforming the landscape with largescale, industrial materials, consequently creating work that, in the words of fellow land artist Michael Heizer, “takes more energy to wreck than its worth.”  This art is about ideas and intention, about what can and cannot be controlled, especially as man takes on nature.  We’ll get more into this when we take a field trip to Robert Smithson’s “The Spiral Jetty”, a vast earthwork that, appropriately enough, Dia owns.  But the upshot is that Serra and Smithson and Heizer and many others were testing the boundaries of what a human being is able to experience given the right environment, and how that environment has been shaped by an artist.

 The facade of Borromini's San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane (1646).

The facade of Borromini's San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane (1646).

Does this sound familiar?  If you’ve ever studied 17th century Baroque architecture, or stepped foot inside a Baroque church, then it should.  Because you’ve felt it.  Baroque art and architecture emerged, when – and here comes that pendulum again – the straight, tidy lines of the Renaissance just weren’t doing it anymore.  Baroque was the Hellenistic to Renaissance’s Classical, it was the emotional, expressive reaction to a period of relative aesthetic calm.  If Renaissance art was a circle, Baroque art was an oval – taking the circle and flattening it, making it a dynamic object in motion.  Ovals have long been a visual shorthand for a moving circle – imagine the wheels of the Flintstone family car spinning into sideways ovals as Fred’s feet patter in a blur beneath it.  And you can actually see this dynamic oval Baroque churches across Europe – everything that you expect to be circular is oblong, with facades that are constantly in movement, undulating in and out, convex and concave, like the entire building has a heartbeat.  The purpose for this dynamism was to immerse the viewer in the throes of religious ecstasy, to overwhelm him with a spiritual experience not unlike a Gothic cathedral would, but smaller scale, more concentrated, maybe even more powerful for its intimacy.

 Ovalpalooza! Oval wheels in motion, and therefore an easy visual shorthand for dynamism. In the meantime, the dimensions of the floor and ceiling of San Carlo really ARE the same, Serra, really!

Ovalpalooza! Oval wheels in motion, and therefore an easy visual shorthand for dynamism. In the meantime, the dimensions of the floor and ceiling of San Carlo really ARE the same, Serra, really!

Serra received a Fullbright to study in Rome in 1964, and saw these churches first hand, particularly Francesco Borromini’s San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane, completed in 1646.  He was smitten with it, particularly its elliptical shape, and particularly how the ellipses seemed misaligned – when you look from the rounded floor to the rounded ceiling, they don’t appear to match up, even though they have the exact same dimensions.  And in Serra’s words, he was fascinated not just by the architecture, but by his own optical misinterpretation of it.  He wanted to see if he could reproduce that misalignment himself, and even went to an aerospace engineer to see if it was possible to create these forms using the scale of steel that he wanted to use.  It took years – of models, of tinkering with technology, until ultimately the same large machines that had been used to build WW2 battleships were compressing and bending Serra’s steel curves.

 Serra,"Tilted Arc" (1981)

Serra,"Tilted Arc" (1981)

Given its historical reference, then, it’s interesting, and maybe a bit prescient, to see what happens when you take Serra’s work in and out of context, or even when you reframe what that context should be.  Some of his sculpture was installed outside of a museum setting and in a public place, and as it sits, changing and challenging the quality of the space around it, you can imagine how passersby regard it.  His piece, “Tilted Arc”, was a 12 foot tall, 120 foot long, 15 ton steel slab, which was installed on the Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981.  From some angles, it looks like a graceful curve; from others, a severe, teetering, deliberately agitating wall that barricades one side of the plaza from the other.  One New York Times critic called it “bullying” – and, really, for an object that is meant to deliberately disrupt your space, she isn’t wrong.  But everyone will experience this disruption differently.  Another Times critic wrote that while “Tilted Arc” was indeed confrontational, it was also gentle and private.  It offers a subjective experience that is remarkably egalitarian.  Like the Torqued Ellipse, it stands quietly in your way, providing you with a contrast against which to experience.  The moon isn’t pleasing unless it’s partially obscured by a cloud; you never knew how solid the ground beneath your feet was until you were confronted with a curving, tilting mass of steel.

Two months after its installation, petitions went around to bring down the bully, to remove the sculpture from the plaza and, essentially, let everyone go back to their business uninterrupted.  Serra argued that there was no place for the sculpture to go.  It was created specifically to the dimensions of the plaza, precisely to the space it was shaping.  Following years of lawsuits, hearings, and claims of breached copyright, first, and Fifth Amendment laws, “Tilted Arc” was ultimately removed from Federal Plaza in 1989, and currently sits in storage.  As it turns out, enlightenment isn’t for everyone.