Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Expecting Violence: Richard Serra's Gravity, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Countermonuments

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Expecting Violence: Richard Serra's Gravity, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Countermonuments

Article excerpt

In 1991, the yet-unbuilt United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's (USHMM) 'Subcommittee for Art for Public Spaces' approached Richard Serra to envision a new work for the much-debated institution.1 The resulting sculpture, Gravity (fig. 1), is a 3.6-metre-square slab of Cor-Ten steel. Like much of Serra's work, the sculpture is site-specific, designed for the Hall of Witness, the three-storey main atrium of the museum. One corner of the slab intersects with the staircase at the lowest point in the hall, where it stands upright like a stocky stela.

Since the opening of the USHMM in 1993, critics and art historians have put forward an emphatic interpretation of how the steel slab functions within the space: namely, that it engages passing visitors through its threat of violence. Hal Foster suggests that it 'arrests' the viewer like a wall, and Adrian Dannatt notes that it forces the visitor to 'go one way or another, to avoid its headlong violence'.2 Neville Dubow states that Gravity projects a 'sense of menace' and is 'visually unstable'.3 Mark Godfrey asserts that it appears as if the almost 30-ton sculpture has 'fallen into the stairs [of the Hall of Witness], slicing them from above'.4 Perhaps most dramatically, he also states that the work creates an 'overwhelming sense of spatial insecurity' and 'fixes viewers in a warp'.5

After reviewing this literature, I entered the USHMM with clear expectations of the Serra work. Yet as I stood on the main level of the Hall of Witness, looking over the railing at Gravity below me, the steel slab seemed neither warping nor destabilizing. School groups in matching T-shirts filed down the stairs, passing close to the sculpture, even brushing up against it without shying away. The sculpture did not divide any groups. Indeed, few people seemed to take notice of the hulking form. Those who did seemed unthreatened: one visitor grabbed the piece solidly by the edge and attempted to shake it. Another, talking on his mobile phone and looking for a place to continue his conversation unbothered, sat on the step at the base of the sculpture and leaned against its face. The man continued like this for over ten minutes, and several museum guards and staffmembers walked past without commenting. Finally, a guard interrupted his conversation to advise him not to lean on the sculpture. The man looked up at the 30 tons of Cor-Ten steel behind him in disbelief, as if he had only just noticed that the sculpture was there. Later, I asked the same guard if he often has to advise people not to lean on the Serra work. 'All of the time', he replied.

While I do not dispute that each of the previously quoted authors had experiences of 'menace', 'division' or 'insecurity' when confronting Gravity, I do question to what extent this experience was based on the work itself and its specific site. Instead, it seems to be based on the predetermined understanding that Serra's works menace, divide and unsettle - and that such threats are appropriate for a Holocaust memorial sculpture. These discourses led scholars to expect an interactive counter-monument that evoked bodily violence. The chasm between critical and visitor experiences offers a means to understand the expectations placed upon Serra's work, and on US Holocaust memorials more generally during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when such works proliferated. I discuss the politics of seeing and sensing as they relate to Holocaust memory in the US, showing that the Serra work, while often rendered invisible and imperceptible by its surroundings, still exerts a Foucauldian discursive power.

I offer this alternative to existing analyses of Gravity through a close reading of the sculpture's function within its particular setting, considering the work within a series of broadening spheres: the architecture of the Hall of Witness, followed by the entire architectural plan, the exhibition layout and the narrative of the museum. This spatial focus offers a response to scholars who treat museums as texts rather than spaces for embodied experience. …

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