Sunday, June 13, 2010

Richard Serra and the Irreproducible: The aesthetics of fear

Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipse IV (1998), MOMA Sculpture Garden, New York, taken by Alexandra P. Spaulding. I like this picture because the viewer gets some sense of the scale Serra works on, as well as the weight of those sheets of steel (note the thickness of the edge). Here, by the way, is a shot that places this sculpture in its spatial context.

(My initial post on Serra is here.)

In no particular order, what follows are some bits and pieces that, with a little teasing out and squinting just so, might help push some ideas in that January post a little bit closer to, at least, field goal range.

**From John Berger's "A White Bird," which I discussed here back in February:

Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, something to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply . . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

**In a comment on the first Serra post, Jim of This Analog Life noted that Serra's work summons adjectives like "monumental" and "memorial"-- and then asked, what's being memorialized?

**Somewhere, I read that Serra had once said that Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is "pictorial."

**Serra again, this time referring to the site-specific nature of his own work: "If you move it, you destroy it."

**Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature": "Why should we not also enjoy an original relation with the universe? . . . . Enbosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope around the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also."

**Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":
"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. (Illuminations 210)

In the comments for that first Serra post, I (half-)jokingly said my next post on this subject would contain "contributions from Emerson and This Is Spinal Tap." This is because I got to thinking of a place like Stonehenge within the context of the ideas of monuments and irreproducibility, and how the notion of irreproducibility would seem somehow to run counter to the idea of art as something that is reproducible--though not (as Benjamin argues and this scene illustrates) without some sort of loss. So, the gathering of the above bits is an attempt to ground that remark.

I know that Benjamin does not have Stonehenge in mind in his essay, but I think that it serves as a pretty expansive example of what he's addressing in the passage above. Stonehenge (I'm referring here to the site as originally built, not its current state) is not merely the stones but their placement--and not just in relation to the other stones but precisely where each stone is placed--and, moreover, on that hill, and not some other, neighboring hill. Stonehenge's physical location is included in the work called Stonehenge. But, given one of Stonehenge's apparent functions as an observatory built to mark and celebrate the beginnings of the seasons, it is not about itself alone, nor is it mimetic, a gesture in the direction of some other, immediately-recognizable object. Rather, it's a space in which we're asked to take seriously our relation to the cosmos in the moment in which we find ourselves at that place, not later at the pub or while we're posting pics of the place on Facebook. If Stonehenge is having its proper effect on us, we shouldn't be looking only at it. Otherwise, we're not seeing it.

I hope I'm not bastardizing Berger's meaning too much when I say this: Stonehenge is, like art more generally, "an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally"--in Stonehenge's particular case, finding comfort and meaning in the ability to see beyond the Here and Now of our particular moment and be able to see rhythms and patterns in the sky beyond the sun's daily reappearance or, even, its yearly appearances in certain parts of the sky but be able to say, with as much certainty as possible, This will always be. Hence Stonehenge's irreproducibility: Stonehenge is not merely an arrangement of objects but an invitation that it can't extend except via our physical presence there to ponder an implicit metaphysical claim about the most essential questions of human existence. You have to be there.

[Aside: I wonder how a work like Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field fits into this discussion, especially given that its curators state that, despite its name, "A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning[.]" Whereas Stonehenge's existence and design are predicated upon the predictability (and affirmation of the importance) of a natural phenomenon, The Lightning Field's purpose is more like an invitation to consider and be open to nature's arbitrariness. Maybe. I have to think about this more, and elsewhere.]

I'm getting to Serra. Really.

The vast majority of art--even overtly-religious art--no longer extends such invitations to its viewers, nor has it for a really long time. (Maybe that's always been the case?) (This is true, these days, even of entire buildings built for expressly religious purposes: all one has to do is consider the office building-like quality of so many contemporary churches to see that this is so.) It engages us intellectually and perhaps even emotionally but not at the level of physical sensation, the idea that we're in its space and we must address its contribution to the intellectual and emotional dialogue between us and it as we look at it. This isn't due to the devaluing of the original in our age of mechanical reproduction but, rather, that its makers, for whatever reason, simply aren't interested in doing so. Or maybe I'm wrong about that (and I'd like to be) but that it's the rare piece of art that can make us forget we're seeing it in a museum or gallery or a classroom--that is, in an artificial space. To be sure, I have that flatness of experience far more often with sculpture than with paintings, as I noted in the first Serra post--paradoxically, most sculpture to me feels so self-contained, so much, ultimately, about itself, that despite its three-dimensional quality my chief preoccupation is how to get around the piece without bumping into it or other people. Again, I'm speaking for myself. Whatever the case, that flatness of response is a sad thing. I don't want to move around art. I want it to move me.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the monumental and memorializing quality of Serra's work arises from his attempt to hearken back recreate something of that "you have to be there" feeling in the audience, the feeling of tension one feels in the presence of genuinely great art that one can sense even when looking at pictures of it but which can't be fully replicated via pictures. But Serra's audience is far different from that of the builders and keepers of Stonehenge. Most of the self-identifying devout among us are thoroughly secularized, even in our religious lives; we have difficulty, I suspect, in fully grasping that structures designed for religious ceremony, not so long ago, were explicitly designed to elicit and shape a response in the visitor . . . and, in the case of ancient sites of worship such as Stonehenge, those structures likewise are constructed in accordance with natural phenomena that its builders wanted to draw attention to and offer implicit comment on. But. God may have created the cosmos, but Western religious expression is not predicated on seeing Him made manifest in its rhythms and patterns. How, then, to create a palpable emotional tension, verging on the physical, between the work and the viewer that can lead to a response verging on at least the existential, if not the spiritual?

Well, just look at Serra's pieces: You build something that looks like it might kill you if you get too close to it or if the wind blows--or, hey, if the earth moves--even as its very design requires that you get close to it. Judging from Jim's experiences with The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the fact that these pieces are in galleries and thus (we assume/hope) are deemed safe to be around doesn't mean that we believe that, no matter whether we know it (at the intellectual level). As Robert Hughes says of Serra's work, "It addresses the body through anxiety, and this is a thoroughly legitimate though long-repressed function of sculpture at its most archaic level." Serra's forms may be non-representational in the traditional sense of that term, but in another sense they evoke apprehension, if not fear . . . and not as abstraction but as an all-too-present, felt experience. Indeed, maybe part of Serra's point as well is that fear should be more present in our lives than it in fact is. And how can that idea be reproduced except by being in the presence of something that causes the viewer not just to muse on that idea but to genuinely feel it?

Serra's work is thus both contemporary in its forms and ancient in its concerns. But--assuming all this I've been speculating on here is even remotely true--is there in Serra's work also an accompanying catharsis of that fear? Not having seen any Serras in person, I can't say; I hope that someone will be able to speak to that question.

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