words Justin McGuirk
Richard Serra has completed the world’s largest sculptural installation at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and it forces us to see the building in an entirely new light.
What we have here is a dustup between two old prize fighters. One of them, the sculptor, is short and compact, and tough as a piece of iron; the other one, the architect, is short and wily, and looks like the good life has made him soft in the belly. They may be white-haired and over the hill but they have history, and they’re settling it right now in Bilbao.
The Guggenheim museum has just opened what it bills as “the largest site-specific sculptural commission in modern history”. The works, by Richard Serra, sit in one of the largest single gallery spaces in the world, designed, one assumes, by Frank Gehry. This attribution is only in question because the 130m-long Arcelor Gallery has always been not only improbably large but also unusably large. The biggest work in Serra’s eight-piece installation The Matter of Time has lived in the space for years, and even that was made to look puny. Gehry claims that he never wanted the gallery to be so big but that Thomas Krens, the director of Guggenheim Inc, forced his hand. Serra says that’s just Gehry “covering his ass”.
In any event, the space was only ever going to work with about eight Serras in it. And so now, eight years after the museum opened, its showpiece gallery finally makes sense. It could be that the Guggenheim always intended this to be Serra’s space, but it is unlikely they knew that the works inside it would challenge the entire building and demonstrate with lethal eloquence just what is wrong with architecture today.
If Gehry shows us how to do architecture as sculpture, then Serra has returned the favour by showing us sculpture as building. Walking through The Matter of Time is an affecting phenomenological experience. The walls of 14-foot-high, 2-inch-thick steel meander and spiral, they lean one way and then the other, they lead you down dark corridors into open spaces or dead ends. As you follow their course, the walls affect you physically: a pair leaning in parallel will throw you off balance as your body tries to align itself with them; walking becomes precarious, with your eyes and inner ear deprived of comforting verticals. There is the uncertainty of never knowing what the walls will do around the bend and the uncomfortable pressure of their tremendous tonnage bearing down on you in a near topple.
What this amounts to, in the most innate sense, is a structure that you can feel. You don’t have to touch the walls to feel them, although the desire to do so is one of the work’s memorable qualities. Some of the walls have been sand-blasted, giving the rust a powdery look, but when you steal a furtive touch you realise that the surface is hard.
Serra describes the pieces in terms of their complex geometries. With his thick pencil whirling across his sketchbook, he enacts their mathematics, explaining how this radius is constant, and that this wall is a sphere and that one a taurus (or “the inside of a donut”). But there’s no need for the viewer to understand all that and Serra knows it. What makes the works is their tectonic power, the way they mimic paper with steel, their sheer weight on the ground. They are the ultimate antidote to Gehry’s museum, which is light and flouncy, an architecture for the eyes – or, more accurately, the page – rather than for the body. Serra’s installation needs to be experienced step by step, and that experience changes with every second – you get nothing from a photograph of it.
It is nearly 40 years since Serra started leaning steel slabs against each other like playing cards. Far from the very basic power of those early works, The Matter of Time has a fluency, you might even say a facility. Serra has mastered his material, and as far as he is concerned materials give form. That is why the building rankles him. Standing in the middle of the spiral piece, he looks up at the arcing horizon and the way it frames Gehry’s elaborate ceiling. “Is that real?” he asks, pointing at the ceiling. “As architecture it’s junk.”
He is confident; he knows that his works are doing exactly what they appear to be doing, whereas the building is mostly hollow and ornamental – in short, that the building is bluffing. Serra describes the piece at the end of the hall as the installation’s ballast, and in a way the whole ensemble is the building’s ballast. The museum needed content, and now it has it.
Serra looks up again. “I don’t think of my piece as a container for the superfluousness of the architecture,” he says. “It ain’t a trash can.”