Matter of time

28 January 2010

The Matter of Time (Richard Serra), now at the
Guggenheim in Bilbao, scanned from a postcard a visiting
friend bought for me in the giftshop.

_

The Guggenheim is the first thing I thought of when I thought of Bilbao. Before I knew anything else about the city, I had a vague mental image of a silver, billowing, sail-like building, blurred green hills behind, something near water. This is particularly ironic because the Guggenheim is, really, still a new building, and because it really doesn’t belong to Bilbao or to the Basques at all. Nonetheless, as a single piece of architecture it’s done more to reshape the city than anything since the steel industry. (Bilbao is Birmingham is Pittsburgh is Glasgow; they’re refranchising the Gugi’s starchitecture to Abu Dhabi).

Funny: it photographs well, but it doesn’t look like much from the street. It faces away from where anybody lives or works; it’s best viewed from a bridge, or the hills overlooking the city, or like a paddle-boat. You occasionally catch glimpses of it, if you’re out that way, down a side alley: an anonymous wall of tarnished silver. It doesn’t loom over the city or mark the skyline—it’s not even central, it’s shunted off to the other end of the Abando, way across the 19th-century extension and as far away from the Casco Viejo’s dank & twisting medieval cobbles as you can get. It’s best viewed, and most dramatic, from the river, which used to be where the docks and the factories and the steelyards were and now is a kind of postindustrial parkway.

At any rate. I’ve seen Serra’s Matter of Time twice since coming here; it’s probably the best reason to visit the Guggenheim (overpriced compared to the Museo de Bellas Artes, which has a bigger collection & is free on Wednesdays). Photographs of it are kind of beside the point—lacking better words, I’ll just reprint here what I wrote in my notebook while sitting in the center of one of those loops of steel:

Richard Serra’s labyrinth: a nautilus, high rust-colored walls, sloped steel, narrowing & widening. An endless feeling, walking through, something about the angles producing a self-renewing feeling of anticipation, of expectation — almost there . . . . A constant sense of being about to arrive, that something decisive is approaching. Deceptively simple.

Appropriate for Bilbao, which has been forging steel since the 6th c.

Being inside the pieces warps your sense of space. You loose yourself. The walls bulge and recede in equal measure. You are made to feel endlessness, momentum, sudden absence of light. Sounds become distant. Someone whistles, a thousand miles away. Far-off footfalls.

The snake [center] is darker than the others, gradients of light near the lip. Stamp your food and the echoes are inhuman. The walls ring like gongs. One spiral feels like it is collapsing, the walls changing color, and you lean to avoid the fall.

A week or so later, Serra came up —one of those moments where what you read all seems to be interrelated— in a Believer interview with Dave Hickey. (About all of these Believer references: I don’t have internet at home. One day, I opened every free online article in the Believer in a tabbed browser so that I’d have something in English to read at night before I go to bed. This is the result.)

DH: Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree. Actually, Bruce Nauman is pretty funny. Everybody pretends that he’s not, but clown torture is pretty funny! You know? And, uh, I think Peter Saul is funny, he’s very witty, and I think Ellsworth Kelly is not funny but he’s witty, and Ed Ruscha is extremely funny and extremely witty, you know?

SH: I love Serra but he’s not funny.

DH: No, well, but Richard’s smart. And he’s an artist. He can’t talk without drawing. He’s the real fucking thing. Not nice.

SH: Not nice. No, he doesn’t seem so nice. [Laughs]

DH: But Richard’s really fun to go look at art with, because he will look at anything, and he likes to look at art, and when you see him you don’t sit around. He says, “Let’s go look at art,” so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.

More photographs — the dumbest way to experience Serra ever — on my tumblr. Tomorrow, I want to take this quotation & think about what seriousness as an infectious form of stupidity might mean.

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3 Responses to “Matter of time”

  1. John B. Says:

    I keep coming back to this post, wanting to say something about Serra’s work–well, more accurately, how it feels to look at it. I know what you mean about pictures being the dumbest way to experience Serra, but I can’t stop looking at this. I can’t imagine what it’d feel like to be there.

    This is such a big deal because the vast majority of sculpture just doesn’t hold my attention, much less my imagination; and I’m trying to figure that out as well, why that is.

  2. Jim Sligh Says:

    There’s something arresting about the visual, yeah — but for me the funny thing is that the things that interest me when I look at Serra’s work are completely different from the things that interest me when I’m inside of it.

    (I also get dizzy when I look at people from a height & try to imagine what where I am looks like from their ground-level perspective, & vice-versa, so I don’t know — maybe it’s a failure of imagination.)

    It feels too obvious for me to say, by way of response, that Serra is unlike the “rest of sculpture” (I don’t know enough about sculpture to complicate this) because his work is an inversion of sculpture, that Serra is maybe more like architecture, in that it’s experiential — we move through it, inside of it, but spelling all of this out feels simultaneously self-evident & generalized.

    I followed one of those related links on the bottom of the post and found a plug for the documentary about the making of Matter of Time, called Thinking On Your Feet, which also loops in a small room offset from the end of the exhibit in the Guggenheim. There’s a blurb from TIME that caught my eye, even though it’s kind of banal:

    “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.”

    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.

    I think about Bolaño in 2666 (I quote this, ironically, even though I have yet to read the novel): “We are increasingly fluent in images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.”

    Visual gloss, torn from context — collage is awfully freeing in some ways, but it’s also a way of not having to think, of reducing experiences to split-second aesthetic twitches. I have this quote I cut & pasted out of a critique of an essay in some review of books, I can’t remember which: “Juxtaposition has become almost overuseful for describing just about any act of combination, opposition, integration, amalgamation, or comparison.” It’s so much easier just to place things side by side and make an inference.

    Meanwhile, all of these things are confounded by a piece like Matter of Time. It’s all tangible, instead — I found myself holding out my arms, grazing the sides of the walls, trying to see whether the space was narrowing or widening. The sound you make walking is different, you’re rooted in place, & when you’re inside it’s a void with nothing else to distract. And once you leave, there’s nothing you can bring with you, no mug with the Mona Lisa on it, that comes close to doing it justice. “The ancient and mysterious power of the real” is a kind of corny sentence, but there’s got to be a non-corny way to rephrase the way in which something that’s actually in front of you, that you can hold in your hands, is different than a hyperreal facsimile.

    Maybe a separate something could be written about the way we engage with photographs of Serra’s work — a kind of titillated frustration, wanting them to give up the sense of what it’s like to experience the piece & knowing that they’re an insufficient record, a trace.

  3. John B. Says:

    Maybe you’ve already run across this?:
    http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/serra/flash.html
    It contains a couple of videos in which the camera moves through the pieces, a surprisingly chatty Serra narrating. The videos are too short, but they do visually convey a sense of the experience of moving in/among the pieces.


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