Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images
Richard Serra in 2005 with one of his works at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.
Richard Serra in 2005 with one of his works at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images
Richard Serra makes sculptures that get under your skin and change how you feel.
It's tempting to credit this to their massive size. There's no doubt about it; in the presence of unnaturally sloping 13-foot tall hull-like sides of steel, you may feel dizzy and slightly off-balance.
For some this is an interesting state to find yourself in; the encounter with the work is a kind of a psychological demonstration of the way what you see gets shaped by, and is bound up with, your sense of your body and your position on the ground and in space.
For others this can be very unpleasant. I know a woman with vertigo who gets sick in the spaces created by Serra's sculptures. And it isn't surprising that, back in the eighties, there was a public action to remove Serra's magnificent Tilted Arc from its downtown New York location. Perhaps the work was simply too visceral and affecting for public art, at least in the minds of some.
But we under describe the work Serra's objects do if we confine ourselves to their psychological power to upset us. They are not special effects; and they are not psychology demos. In fact, it is a mistake even to call them objects. It would be better to say that they are worlds, or cityscapes.
The first thing you notice when you enter the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea in New York, where two giant new works are on display, is that, well, you can't see them, you can't locate them as objects with fronts sides and backs and clear boundaries. There's no standing back and taking in what you see; there's only stepping in and exploring the lay of the land.
So this is a different way of getting under your skin.
To encounter one of these works is not so much to see something you don't understand as it is to find yourself someplace and not know your way around. But this isn't psychological manipulation; it's not just getting under your skin. It's an invitation to find out where you are by exploring the work. The pieces are worlds and worlds afford opportunities for exploration, investigation, and learning.
These new works of Serra's are complicated and compelling, and they really do invite you in. The surfaces of the steel in these installations are painterly, smooth, sometimes almost velvet-like and lush. But mere surface properties have almost nothing to do with the pleasures that an encounter with this work can afford. The pleasure is that of the passage from being lost, to being found.
I would say that there is also the opportunity for a certain kind of enlightenment. These days we like to understand everything in the key of neuroscience. We think of seeing as something that happens in the head. In fact, seeing is something that whole animals (not brains) undertake; it is, in Dewey's image, a transaction of doing and undergoing. Seeing, or any other kind of conscious experience, happens not in the private caverns of our minds, but out there, with others, in environments that we make, and that then in turn surround us and compel.
Serra's work may be psychological; it may be theatrical. But the real work that it does for us is philosophical. These are philosophical spaces that excite us by letting us remember what it is like to discover the world through active living.
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