Friday, September 13, 2013

the matter of time

Jerome and I are in Bilbao, on vacation prior to my residency in Catalonia. At the Guggenheim museum here, I was captivated by the Richard Serra installation "The matter of time". It consists of eight elliptical pieces of torqued steel that each must be at least twenty feet tall. I had seen a film about its creation; to walk through it in person was an extraordinary experience. The photo at left shows one of the eight pieces, with a second in the background. It scarcely does the work justice, but may give a sense of its form and color.

The museum displays a statement by Serra about the installation:

The torqued ellipses, spirals, spheres and toruses exist in the polarity between the downward force of gravity and their upward rise in elevation which attempts to attain a condition of weightlessness. The sculptures are not objects separated in space but on the contrary they engender the spatial continuum of their environment. They impart form to the entire space, they shape the space through axes, trajectories and passages between their solids and voids.
I titled this installation The matter of time because it is based on the idea of multiple or layered temporalities. As one experiences each work in the context of the entirety of the installation one will become aware of the obvious diversity of durations of time. The meaning of the installation will be activated and animated by the rhythm of the viewer's movement. Meaning only occurs through continuous movement, through anticipation, observation and recollection. However, there is no prescribed view, no preferred sequence, no preferred succession of views. Each person will map the space differently. There is an unlimited range of personal experiences, but they all take place over time. When I talk about time, I do not mean "real" time, clock time. The perceptual or aesthetic, emotional or psychological time of the sculptural experience is quite different from "real" time. It is non-narrative, discontinuous, fragmented, de-centred, disorienting."

I read this as true, but to me it does not express adequately the experience of walking around and through the different works. I was very aware of the moment in time as I paced through them, yet there were other more salient, and perhaps more subjective, reactions that stay with me even now, hours later. The primary memory is that, for all their grandeur and monumentality, there was a curious sense of intimacy within and around the pieces. The sensuality of the curves and of the textures of the rusted steel seemed to embrace me in a very physical way. The installation invited slow and mindful movement, and there were moments when the particular shape of space, be it an opening, a passageway, or the end of a path at the middle of a piece, invited pause. The light on the surfaces shifted, and was sometimes matte sometimes lustrous, sometimes warmer sometimes cooler, sometimes lighter sometimes darker. The changes led one onward, to see what would happen next. In fact, curiosity is a major factor in experiencing the whole installation.

I wondered what it would be like to experience The matter of time in the open air rather than inside a building, and what effect weather and time would have on it. I decided that it would be a very difference experience to explore it outside with only natural light, and that while it would be interesting, there was something about it being inside that was part of its definition. Perhaps the ceiling and walls added to the sense of intimacy that was so strong for me. In fact, experiencing it outside could detract from much of its fascination. I wonder if this was part of Serra's reason for deliberately putting it inside.

All in all, this was an interaction with a work of art that was profound and, I think, lasting. It was such a physical experience, in addition to the psychological one. I wonder if a painting could achieve a similar effect.

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