Ever since I saw, or rather experienced, his massive installations, Richard Serra has been one of my favorite sculptors. There is something so very simple about his installations and yet, it is also overwhelming and interactive and brings out emotions that only such overbearing environments can. Here’s a video with Serra talking about his work:
Serra’s pieces become environments to which the audience has no choice but to react to. Whether or not you enter the spaces, you must interact with them as they hang over you. What I found even more interesting is how the pieces forced interactions with others.
When you enter one side of the piece, you often cannot see the other end and therefore cannot see if you are sharing the space with anyone else. Since the spaces are tight as it is, you are often forced to pass others in a narrow ‘hallway’ and cannot avoid interaction. We have unspoken rules of how to interact with others in public spaces, and these sculptures force us to break some of these rules.
It is also interesting how slight changes in the angles of the walls evoke extremely different emotions. Despite the fact that my mind knew that these heavy pieces of steel would not fall over and crush me, my heart still raced at certain moments, imagining that they perhaps might as the walls caved over me. Our interactions with the spaces we occupy have always fascinated me. Every space we occupy guides our actions to some degree, and these are no different. I reacted differently when in these wide circular but mostly closed off spaces, I reacted differently under walls that seemed to be falling inwards, I reacted differently when I was sharing the space with another person and I reacted differently as the pieces sometimes seemed to isolate me from everything else.
I know that often our instinct is to try to understand art, to simplify it and label it. But in this case, I think the value in appreciating Serra’s pieces is not in ‘understanding’ it, but rather acknowledging it as an experience. There are certain works for which background information elevates our appreciation for the work, but I love that Serra’s pieces can stand on their own, no explanations required.