Sunday, January 31, 2010

Richard Serra and the Irreproducible

[UPDATE: The title for this post, I should have noted, has its origin in a comment by Jim: "Ok. Yes, Serra looks cool photographed. But I think there’s something very thought-out & challenging to how we — ok, I — tend to experience art these days in the way that he creates experiences that by virtue of their construction cannot be reproduced." [his italics]

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time (Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao). Image found here.

Follow the link just above, and you'll see that Jim Sligh of This Analog Life "scanned [this image] from a postcard a visiting friend bought for [him] in the giftshop." What you see is a copy of a scan of a photograph, itself reproduced who knows how many times and in how many places. If you read Jim's post, you'll see that he has linked to other, really good photos of Serra's work but in the same breath tells you that looking at pictures is "the dumbest way to experience Serra ever." He is right. This picture itself tells you this implicitly: "You have to be 'here' (which is really 'there')."

Well, I'm not. Bilbao is out of reach just now for various temporal and material reasons. But as I told Jim in a comment on his post, I keep returning to his post to keep looking at this picture, that I find it compelling in a way I find very little sculpture, of any sort (an idea I hadn't realized I thought, and one which caught me by surprise), and I keep trying to figure out why that is. This post is an attempt to do that.

It will probably fail; that's why the rest of it is below the fold.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I post fairly frequently on art, but the vast majority of those posts deal with paintings and drawings. They almost never mention sculpture, and then only in passing. I'd never really thought--at all--about why that is before a couple of days ago, when I first saw the post on Serra at Jim's blog and said, Wait a minute . . .

I like sculpture well enough. When my Humanities students and I meet in Kansas City at the Nelson-Atkins, as we will again this May, I make it a point to show them the full-size bronze cast of Rodin's The Thinker on the south side of the museum. We walk around the plinth it sits on, looking up as we do (the top of the plinth is about head-height; the sculpture itself sits on that and is itself around 7' or so from its base to its highest point); we talk about things such as the figure's distended, gnarled toes and Rodin's attempt to make the bronze look as though it had been carved rather than poured. It's cool to see this famous sculpture. But that's about it, as far as my engagement with that or just about any other sculpture is concerned. I get the idea that sculpture's there-ness, its occupying of space, makes its viewer have to deal with it in some way, if only to avoid it or walk around it. But then that makes our interaction with sculpture sound like the piece is like one of those people we have to interact with out of politeness--if we must. Which is to say, there's no genuine interaction except at the level of What's Expected of Us. It remains in its space, posing no ultimate challenge to mine. Even pieces as undeniably beautiful as Michelangelo's Pieta or Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, if this make sense, confront me without moving me. Or, put another way: Even though I very much enjoy looking at them, I don't feel the need to keep looking at them. Paintings, on the other hand, I will return to again and again, the Nelson's Rembrandt, for example: they don't engage my physical space, but they engage my imagination as very few sculptures do.

There are exceptions, of course. I've never seen Rodin's Burghers of Calais (scroll to the bottom of the page for a brief discussion of the sculpture) in person, but I get the feeling that I would want to walk around and around it and want to come back to it again. The reason: It photographs terribly. It has no "good side," which is to say that no one side presents itself to the viewer as the side to be seen. It--that is, the experience of seeing it in person--is irreproducible because it is so designed that it requires us to move around it. (The Thinker, by comparison, is a depiction of a very large naked guy sitting on a rock. He is shown in three dimensions and so has a back side to him, but that back side is, of course, the least interesting of his sides. So, take a picture of him from the front or in profile and, apart from its massiveness and the subtleties of texture you've reproduced a surprising amount of the reason to see it. This is not meant to be dismissive of a justly-famous sculpture; it's simply so.)

Though I've not seen the Burghers in person, I have seen a sculpture that I think owes much to Rodin's work, the sculpted soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. This one photographs poorly as well, but I can attest that seeing it in person is a very moving experience. You can't actually walk among the sculptures, but you can get so close to them that their size (each figure is well over 7' tall) creates the sense that you are. Moreover, their very different expressions and attitudes give the space a sense of tension and urgency that very few war memorials do that I've ever visited. These men are not on parade but on patrol. We are in their way.

Is the nearby Vietnam Memorial also sculptural in its treatment and shaping of the space the visitor occupies? The way that the visitor begins at ground level, the wall of names just a few inches tall; then, as the years progress and the wall of names gets taller, taller as the path gradually declines, till the visitor reaches the angle and the wall--one's reflection and the names on it--is all one can see? I had of course seen pictures of the Memorial and pictures of people weeping at it. I assumed that those people were grieving friends and family they had lost; I assumed that I would not be so moved if I ever visited it. And then I visited it. I lost no family or friends in that war; I was a child then, even now vividly recalling the nightly reports of dead and injured but otherwise unmoved by the war; yet that day I visited, the only thing I could think as I reached that place was, I am in a tomb. How can one not keep from getting teary-eyed there? I would like to know the secret, because I find myself really reluctant to visit it again, even though I want to.

It's an emotionally-dangerous space.

Also in Washington is a space made to feel physically-dangerous by a sculpture: the atrium of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, over which hangs Alexander Calder's enormous Mobile #3. The first time I saw it, I was standing in a queue to be admitted to a big Art Nouveau exhibit in that wing; since the queue was a couple hundred people long, I had a nice long time to contemplate Calder's work. It looks light and delicate . . . and then you look more closely at the shaft and hook from which it hangs--it looks like something from a construction site--and it suddenly loses a lot of its gossamer-like quality. But not all of it, of course. It's beautiful to look at, in the same way that an airplane in flight is beautiful to look at. But the physics of each, the forces required to keep each in the air, are very real, very much also part of what we're looking at--indeed, those forces are required to be present so that these things keep on being beautiful. And that makes us more attentive to our space, our place in that space.

This is also Serra's territory as a sculptor: the creating of a silent dialogue among the viewer, his materials and the forms they take, and not the defiance of physics (the way so much constructed metal sculpture can feel) but the implicit reminder to the viewer who moves among these pieces, via the fact that they don't come toppling on him, that despite the way things seem in the world, here the very oldest laws of the world are at work. By way of illustrating, here are two short passages on Serra's work that I want to put in proximity with each other:

At the dawn of the 21st century, an era of cyberspace, reproduction and the Internet, no one is doing more to make work that stands for the ancient and mysterious power of the real. --from a Time review of a documentary on the making of Matter of Time, found here via Jim's post.

"[T]he main character of Serra's work [is] its scariness. You are never allowed to forget the weight of Serra's metal. The possibility of being crushed by it is part of its sculptural effect. It addresses the body through anxiety, and this is a thoroughly legitimate though long-repressed function of sculpture at its most archaic level." --Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, p. 568

It is hard to articulate all this because you can't reproduce via pictures, and barely through words, what's at work here. I suppose that that's the reason I find myself returning to the picture at the top of this post--it is like reading a poem whose meaning eludes one (Wallace Stevens says in his poem "Man Carrying Thing" that "the poem must resist intelligence/Almost successfully"). The sculptor made these forms, yes; but they signify something other than themselves. Or, more accurately, they can fully signify only with our physical, irreproducible presence there.

I don't mean to imply a religious or spiritual significance for these pieces, but I keep returning in my mind to Stonehenge and other monumental ancient solar calendars as a way to begin thinking about Serra's work. Without human agency, the movements of the sun and moon and stars would have no transcendant meaning. Those movements would be no less real, but they would not signify what the ancients said they signified. Serra doesn't build sun calendars; but, like the sun, his works obey the laws of physics even as they push those laws very, very hard. As the shapes of his pieces compel the viewer to move around and into them, their sides leaning this way and that and their tops opening wide or converging, light and sound changing as the viewer moves about, those laws become more present in our experience: they alter so as to be noticed, and the viewer changes as well. Something even more primitive than "ancient" occurs--indeed, you can't get any more ancient, or irreproducible, than "real."
Bonus: A collection of short videos of Serra's work and interviews with him from the Museum of Modern Art's 2007 exhibition of Serra sculptures. The videos are shorter than I would like, but they do give something of the sense of what it's like to move around/between/through these pieces.

If you've read this far, you may be interested in my continuation of this discussion, here.


Jim Sligh said...

I said to myself yesterday, It sounds like John's got a post in him about this. I'm glad to see you trying to work it through, and it's given me a lot to think about.

Like I said, I don't know a lot about sculpture — I haven't yet gotten much of an art history education — but I did think of Rodin, and I like this: "It photographs terribly. It has no "good side," which is to say that no one side presents itself to the viewer as the side to be seen. It — that is, the experience of seeing it in person — is irreproducible because it is so designed that it requires us to move around it."

Apart from Burghers of Calais, another nomination I have for a Rodin that does something like this to me is The Gates of Hell, which I remember vividly standing in front of at the sculpture garden at Stanford more than five years ago (although, ironically, I see now according to the caption that it's not the original, but one of six bronze casts).

— but that said, what I actually wanted to get at was the interesting way the words "monumental" and "memorial" swirl around Serra, the question becoming, "Memorializing what?"

The only other sculptor I can think of who makes me feel like this is maybe Louise Bourgeois — the feeling of stepping into a room with one of her spiders filling up the whole space. (She has a piece outside the Guggenheim here, too, but I first saw her work at a big retrospective at the ICA in Boston).

You write, "I don't mean to imply a religious or spiritual significance for these pieces," and true, yes, but I do think that art ( "mimetic activity," to throw in Walter Benjamin) is a kind of myth for a world without myth. I come back to the second-to-last paragraph of John Berger's essay, "The White Bird": "The transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer."

R. Sherman said...

My problem with sculpture has always been the fact that it's self contained. There's no place for my mind to go "outside" the work. Unlike a painting where someone is looking out a window, we cannot wonder what s/he is seeing or what his/her expression signifies. Stated differently, the subject of a painting is in a different world, the limits of which are only our own imagination.

With a sculpture, it's in our world, thus putting limits on our imagination.

Just some quick thoughts before I have to get to work.


John B. said...

Thanks (or blame) to both of you for your comments. Look for more on this subject in a couple of days that each of you will have more or less unwittingly contributed to, with contributions from Emerson and This Is Spinal Tap.

Ben Gage said...

nice line,"..Something even more primitive than "ancient" occurs.." Describing Serra in this context references a most basic concept ignored by most artists: awe..experiencing it, understanding it and doing something about it is Art...

Phil Palmedo said...

Re R. Sherman's comment on painting vs. sculpture: It is exactly sculpture's self-contained nature, its independence, that makes it the more pure aesthetic object. A painting is always a conflicted entity: part canvas, part stretcher, part paint, part that which is represented. In its independence, a sculpture is pure art.