contemporary art, contemporary sculpture, installation art

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time (1994-2005)

September 22, 2012
Photo: Elliot Levitt

To some degree this is art for the feet. Serra’s eight sculptures invite you to walk them in sequence. In fact they demand it. How else will you get to see them?

Thus it takes half an hour to simply cover the ground of this semi-permanent show in the Arcelor-Mittal Gallery here at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

It is a large space and the sculptures make it even larger. You trace a path through spirals which appear larger inside than out. You encounter barriers dividing the room.

All the while, at some atavistic level, you experience fear that one of these forged steel slabs will lean too far in and crush you. Or you experience this as thrill.

Rusty steel may not be the most eye-catching of materials. But it is hard to imagine more of a spectacle in any gallery than this biggest-ever group of Serra works.

Those who believe artists must work hard at feats beyond the range of “my three year old,” should be well pleased with this piece of monumental maze-making.

It weighs about 1,000 tons. Individual pieces have been engineered to the nearest tenth of a millimetre. Their journey from a German forge to the Basque region was epic.

It is fitting that this gravity-deying consignment came by boat. Serra recounts how as a boy he was taken to witness the launch of a tanker ship in Brooklyn.

After it slipped down the launch, the watching crowd held its breath as this vessel first sank and then rose to a state of sea-worthy floatation.

“All the raw material that I needed is contained in that memory,” the artist has said. It is a great story and indeed floating ships and flying planes should fascinate sculptors.

Visitors to The Matter of Time have two ways of approach this work. They can lose themselves on ground level or take an aerial view from a balcony on level one.

If anything, the balcony makes Serra’s gallery look even more precarious. To enjoy this takes a measure of faith. And so the material gives rise to the immaterial.

Perhaps that is the real effect of time on matter: some manner of transcendence, as the 25-year exhibition slowly turns amber with rust and we ourselves go grey.

These works can be seen at the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Check gallery website for more details.

2 Comments

  • Reply David R Brook October 20, 2019 at 4:22 am

    I came to understood The Matter of Time as exactly that, before I learned that this was the installation’s title. It was vertiginous. It was out-of-time, out-of-space, and therefore was a visitor from the fourth dimension. As such, it could only be understood by humans with our senses and ability to imagine the extra-sensory. The feel of the steel, the shape, the change in the ambient sound levels as one moved through the installation provided a few clues. No clear frames-of-reference, even from above, put one into a reverie. Disquieting to some, a fascination for others. No one was unaffected. Richard Serra’s brilliant work, contained within a marvelous gallery in Bilbao, taught me how to appreciate apprehend and understand Modern Art. I looked at Mark Rothko differently thereafter. I saw that his paintings at the Tate Modern in London were painted from six different directions simultaneously and they would snap into focus with that realization. It was humbling, but I credit Richard Serra with seeing beyond (as if hearing with one’s eyes and seeing with one’s ears). It was revelatory.

    • Reply Mark Sheerin June 22, 2020 at 10:00 pm

      Thank you David for your comment. I hadn’t linked Serra to Rothko in that way but I can believe what you say. Apart from being similar in scale and ambition, both the Matter of Time and the Rothkos at the Tate are quite earth toned, so although extra sensory in their way, both are nicely grounded.

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