A montanha mágica

segunda-feira, outubro 06, 2008

"In an adjacent room he has installed a towering steel wall, 10 inches thick, which stands, squat and uncompromising, in the centre of the rectangular space. Like many Serra sculptures, it looks as if it might topple over with enough people leaning against it. (A rigger was crushed to death during the installation of a Serra piece in the early Seventies.) You realise, when confronted with a sculpture of such formal simplicity, such literal and metaphorical weight, that, for or all its familiarity, Serra's work still intimidates. There is something almost Orwellian about this piece, though he has named in it in honour of Fernando Pessoa, the elusive Portuguese author of a meandering, semi-mystical novel called The Book of Disquiet. He says the connection is tangential: he was reading the book while making the piece, and cautions that 'one should not read too much into my titles'. (In the past he has dedicated work to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the art critic David Sylvester.) The Pessoa piece is powerful; it brings to mind foundries and shipyards as well as the Berlin Wall and the Israeli-built security fence that snakes though Palestine. You can see why it might cause consternation to those who prefer art to be in some way uplifting.

'I was thrown out of Yale for something real stupid,' says Serra, stern features dissolving into a childlike grin. 'Robert Rauschenberg came up there as a visiting critic. Being a bit sparky back then, I thought I'd see what he was made of. I found a chicken and tethered it to a rope and put it in this box on a pedestal. It was a kind of prank at Rauschenberg's expense, right? But when he lifted the box, the goddamn chicken flew up above him and started shitting everywhere.'

You can see that Serra relishes the memory of that rebellious moment even though it almost cost him his scholarship. 'All the students were cracking up, and even Rauschenberg, to his credit, liked the gesture. But the faculty didn't see the joke. I was suspended for two weeks, but it was kind of worth it.'

He pauses, still grinning, then says: 'That incident sums up my attitude: I don't give a shit but I care quite a lot.'

Age has not withered him, nor dented what he calls, only half-jokingly, his 'sceptical negativism'. When I ask him to describe his sensibility he says: 'I have a certain obstinacy, a certain wilfulness that has got me in trouble but it has also got me through.'

In the main gallery there are two huge curved circles of oxidised steel, one convex, the other concave. The second is the exact inverse of the first but the experience of walking along - and around and through - each is radically different. One looms above you, the other seems in danger of falling away. One is womb-like in its sense of enclosure; the other seems to draw all the light into its centre. They seem, for all their epic tonnage, to defy logic as well as gravity.

'Those two pieces are collecting the space in certain ways,' Serra tells me when we meet at the gallery. One suspects he could talk all day about the abstract geometry of spheres, reversed curves and torqued ellipses. 'In one, you sense the volume moving out like a giant flowerpot, or moving in like a giant lampshade. It's all about centralising the space in different ways. How people move in relation to space, that's essentially what I'm up to.'

For a long time Serra's work was held to illustrate the tensions that surround public art, its funding, its responsibility and its execution. 'Up until about 10 years ago I got a lot of stick,' he says. 'It reached a crescendo of sorts around Tilted Arc. At one point they had posters plastered all over my work with a picture of the Vietnamese guy being shot in the head and a sign underneath that said, "Kill Serra". People were threatening to kill me because I was making art in New York City. That's a little bit extreme, right?'

He doesn't even have to think about the answer. 'It was the curves,' he says, laughing. 'It was definitely the curves. When I showed the first series of Torqued Ellipses in New York 10 years ago there was a definite sense that people were reacting to the work in a different way. People reacted to the curves in a way they didn't to the angles and straight lines. They hadn't seen that before. Modernism was a right angle; the whole 20th century was a right angle.'

Nodding his head as if in complete agreement with himself, he concludes: 'People were ready for curves.'

Richard Serra was born in San Francisco in 1939, the second of three sons to a Spanish mother and a Russian-Jewish father. Both his parents were left-leaning and he remembers two of his uncles, who worked on the piers, shooting at each other in a long-running row over union politics. 'It was a lively environment,' he laughs. 'I grew up poor but the atmosphere was rich. There always seemed to be political discussions in the house, debates about what sort of life you should live. Where you come from confers meaning on what you do, and that's how it was for me, I guess. I'm single-minded, that's for sure.'

After the Rauschenberg spat, a Fulbright grant took him in 1964 to Paris, where he visited Brancusi's studio and hung out nightly at the cafe La Coupole, waiting for glimpses of his hero, Alberto Giacometti. The great sculptor 'would turn up for a drink late at night with plaster in his hair'. He later described both artists as 'empowering figures'.

Serra's 'big epiphany as an artist' occurred when, on a fleeting visit to Spain, he saw Velazquez's astonishing painting Las Meninas for the first time. It is a group portrait, in which the artist has placed himself in the background, poised at his easel, his gaze directed back out at the viewer. 'I was still very young and trying to be a painter, and it just knocked me sideways,' he says. 'I looked at it for a long time before it hit me that I was an extension of the painting. This was incredible to me. A real revelation. I had not seen anything like it before and it made me think about art, and about what I was doing, in a radically different way. But first, it just threw me into state of total confusion.'

For a while afterwards, he made some very odd installation pieces deploying a variety of stuffed animals and, in one instance, a live pig. He was lost, he says, but on his way to reinventing himself as an artist whose work would hinge on the idea of 'the viewer being the subject of the piece'. He says he is still grappling with to that idea today. 'In my later work, the person who is navigating the space, his or her experience becomes the content. So, the whole subject-object relationship is reversed. The content is you! If you don't walk into the work and engage with it, there isn't any content. That's really what I've been dealing with ever since I saw the Velazquez painting.'

'The dancers were the real radicals. They taught me more about space and movement and gravity than anyone else.'

Like the great American novelist Philip Roth, who possesses a similarly sceptical, combative sensibility, Serra has greeted the onset of old age with a burst of renewed creative intensity. There have been two big shows, last year's 40-year retrospective at Moma in New York, and this year's opening exhibition for the Monumenta event at the Grand Palais in Paris.

'Man, that was a tightrope walk,' he says. 'There was no way to mock it up, so vast was the space. We didn't know if the piece would work until the first plate went up. It was one of the most glorious experiences of my life when I saw that it was working. It was probably the first time I thought I had done something that was better than me as a person.'

Sculpture runs until 20 December at the Gagosian, London WC1"

posted by Luís Miguel Dias segunda-feira, outubro 06, 2008

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