Academic journal article Critical Studies

Triggering Latency Zones in Modern Society: Richard Serra's Sculptures within the Urban Setting

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Triggering Latency Zones in Modern Society: Richard Serra's Sculptures within the Urban Setting

Article excerpt

Richard Serra's "claim to an absoluteness of direct and immediate aesthetic presence and to absolute experience of mis presence" (Buchloh 1989, 115) gives way to the creation of strong formal objects that overwhelm observers and guide mem toward a new experience of spatiality. In the past, the aesthetic radicalism and solidness of Serra's work - which primarily takes on its powerfully effective generative creativity from mese characteristics - has also aroused resentment in broad segments of the population, even erupting into violence against sculpture and artist. Strikingly, however, the arguments brought forward against Serra's sculptures very rarely address the artwork itself. Rather, controversies surrounding his sculptures reveal latent sensitivities, hostilities and conflicts of interest. This paper explores how Serra's massive but anti-monumental sculptures unearth the social and temperamental latency zones of modern society through an examination of three case scenarios: Terminal in Bochum, Germany (1979), Tilted Arc in New York City, USA (1981), and Intersection in Basel, Switzeriand (1992).

Towards the end of the twentieth century, a number of permanent installations of Serra's urban sculptures were met with hostile reactions and enveloped in public controversy. Serra's massive sculptures both stimulate and challenge routine perceptions. In his site-specific works, Serra intervenes in conventional topologies and sociopolitical realities by de-coordinating accustomed visual axes and scopes. Yet his artistic point of departure is not the destruction or elimination of an object or a given structure, in keeping with the fantasies of violence of the European avant-garde (Ehrlicher 2001), but instead the insertion of a resistive object, which vigorously superimposes or slices into familiar and hegemonic spaces and structures. In experimenting with new formal relations, Serra aims neither for a decorative affirmation of the given, already existing spatial regime nor for the implementation of a completely new order. On the contrary, he has always been interested in singularizing and critically analyzing existing orders. In troubling the accustomed lines of vision and fields of movement, Serra aims to initiate reflection and inspire new aesthetic experiences within the forceful compositional lines of his massive sculptures. His intention is to disturb and restructure the routines of spatial behavior in order to extend and alter people's experience and provoke thought.

Marking the coming end of the industrial age, Serra projects and arranges industrially manufactured steel slabs using heavy machinery and mechanical steel presses. His farewell to an era nearing its final days assumes the form of an homage; he explores steel's "tectonic potential, its weight, its compression, its mass, its stasis" in a unique way - at least unique within the art world (McShine 2007, 28). In following up on previous works involving rubber and lead, in putting together a list of various kinds of actions and carrying them out on the material to see how matter reacts and finds its own forms, Serra has taken on the new challenge of projecting and arranging massive steel sculptures. Over the years, he has developed und cultivated his own sculptural vocabulary and formal order, modulating basic geometric forms and shapes into demanding and versatile site-specific objects. He thus meets the soaring loss of importance of advanced art by confiding in the aesthetic and provocative potential of pure material and form.

Terminal, Bochum/Germany (1979)

After its initial temporary exhibition in the context of the Documenta in Kassel, Terminal (1977) became the first permanent installation of an ambient sculpture by Serra within the urban setting. Serra's sculpture was brought to its allocated place on a busy traffic island close to the forecourt of Bochum railway station in 1979. This notable work consists of four trapezoidal steel slabs leaning together. …

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