words Rosie Spencer
The simple act of walking up and down the vast nave of Paris’ Grand Palais was how American artist Richard Serra found inspiration for his latest work, Promenade. The resulting piece is a series of immense steel slabs that dwarf those walking around them, creating a dizzying dialogue with the delicate Art Nouveau exhibition hall.
Commissioned by France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication, Serra’s piece is the second in the annual Monumenta series, which invites major international artists to create site-specific works for the 13,500sq m central space of the Grand Palais. Promenade consists of five monumental sheets of milled corten steel, each measuring 17m high by 4m wide and 13cm thick, placed 30.5m from each other along the building’s central axis.
The work is characteristic of San Francisco-born Serra’s large-scale minimalist constructions, such as his 1987 piece Fulcrum at London’s Liverpool Street Station – a sculpture of five freestanding, 17m-high, corten steel plates that lean against each other for support. His work is primarily interested in the tension between weight, gravity and balance, creating pieces that alter perceptions of the spatial environment.
Promenade’s giant slabs, each weighing 75 tonnes and processed in a steel foundry in the Loire, are intended to create a rhythmic conversation with the architecture of the Grand Palais – the largest uninterrupted glass and iron space in the world, built for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 and now host to large-scale exhibitions, art fairs and fashion shows. The piece is designed to be seen from multiple viewpoints, so that the appearance of the steel sheets will change in relation to each other and the space. Each one is slightly tilted – the two at either end at the same angle, while the three in the middle at different angles, forming an asymmetrical sequence leaning either towards or away from the central axis. They stand higher than the building’s viewing gallery and emerge into the glass vault, which at its centre is 45m high. The idea is to convert the entire space into a sculptural installation, merging the experience of the art and the architecture.
“The piece is tilting on its axis and it is tilting on its edge as it rises in elevation,” Serra said in an interview with the exhibition’s curator, Alfred Pacquement. “As you walk the plane, an illusion occurs in terms of just which way it is relating to the space: it has a lot to do with your locality to the plate. From far away, it might seem static and as you move toward it, it may either appear to lean away from you or toward you, but depending where you are, it may also shift its relationship to your perception.”
Serra thrives on creating a theatrical experience between the viewer, the piece and the surrounding environment. Another of his works is currently installed in Paris – Clara-Clara, at the Tuileries gardens, which was first shown there in 1983 but has since been in storage. The piece comprises two giant curved steel sheets, 32.8m long and 3.7m high, forming inverted parentheses. The work creates a relationship both to the surrounding architectural features and to the installation at the Grand Palais, forming an even larger-scale promenade between the two pieces within the city. “My work is first and foremost about walking and looking, but I cannot tell anyone how to walk, or how to look,” Serra has said.
Richard Serra: Promenade is at the Grand Palais, Paris, until 15 June.
images all rights reserved MCC-Monumenta 2008