It is quite often that architecture’s artistic potential is reduced to its decorative ability. Richard Serra is a sculptor but his work usually incorporates spatial archetypes which he orchestrates into sculptures of distinct architectural qualities. His alphabet of spatial paradigms is often stripped down to the absolute basic features. There are no articulations nor junctions. Most elements seem smooth and of one piece. At the same time the architectural references are never too obvious with the use of windows for example or any other similar scale-revealing elements. However most of these sculptures can be entered hence the visitor is surrounded by them making the association to buildings inevitable.
Apparently Serra distils the character and essence of spaces that have haunted him. Usually the materials he uses to form these spaces are heavy metals with a rusty finish which from certain angles look as if they have been carved in butter. They feel like light structures when in reality they weight tonnes. What interests me though is that the media used is not the metal but the space which is defined by it.
There are more contradictions which enrich this work and make it interesting along with its minimal aesthetic simplicity. In this specific exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in London Backdoor Pipeline is actually a piece which resembles both a cave and a leviathan, summing up contradictory spatial experiences of shelter and dangerous confinement. Hence the effect is extremely powerful.
Ramble which is basically a simplified maze is another age-old architectural paradigm. Even though there is no way to actually get lost in it because there are no dead ends, there is a similarity to the maze concept. One has to manoeuvre around parallel metallic walls of different height hence the moving pattern is similar and brings to mind the maze archetype. Being able to find one’s way through a dense combination of obstacles can be stressful but manoeuvring skilfully among them evokes feelings of accomplishment.
In London Cross both access and visual contact are restricted as a part of the room cannot be seen or entered. This feels quite oppressive however eventually one realises that the inaccessible space is actually easily reached through an other door which is not even visible from the initial entrance. This obviously changes everything and the space acquires an interesting ironic quality.
Finally the piece of two metal solid blocks on top of one another brings forth strong feelings that refer to mortality and impermanence. To me it somehow looked like a tombstone and something about it was quite harsh or even aggressive. Most Serra sculptures are more playful and they can be entered. This is the opposite: It is impenetrable.
I believe that what Serra does is to masterfully manipulate minimal architectural symbols in order to appeal to our primordial human nature. The use of such a spatial vocabulary stirs visceral feelings that most people can relate to. Actually this is what good architecture should do as well.
The one negative thing that I have to say about Serra’s work has to do with how commercial it actually is. I find quite contradictory that this work deals with universal themes which people relate to beyond culture or education, however extremely few sculptures are ultimately exhibited in public spaces or galleries. Serra’s work is exclusive to the Gagosian and is displayed in order to be sold to private collectors for astronomical prices. It is eventually hidden away in some secluded property, large enough to accommodate it and is never seen again by the public eye.
The truth is that there are no real surprises there. We all know that the art world is a dog-eat-dog area and artists strive to remain successful in order to stay relevant. Naively though, I cannot but be a little hurt when art which can reach so many is reserved for the few “privileged”.
The exhibition will remain open until Wednesday 4th of March 2015