Serra’s Shift

Yesterday morning my father, myself, and a few roomates and friends piled into my new one dollar van to drive north of Toronto to see Richard Serra’s early site-specific work, “Shift”. Although I first heard about the piece four years ago in a course on late Heidegger, a lack of private transportation meant this was my first time seeing it – a very appropriate first use for the new van.

The piece is set into a field, but not the field next to the road. Instead, there is a field of mud and soybeans between the sculpture and the road. This, and the fact that it is unpublicized, is an essential part of the work – it comes from a period of artists removing themselves from the gallery scene. (However, I don’t think it would be awful in the future for the work to become public, a small interpretive centre, gravel walking paths etc…)

The work is set into a farmer’s field which is in use, so around the piece is planted a crop (soybeans we think, and from all the corn lying around it is likely on a rotation). The farmer is surely using a very large machine, and thus can’t cut too close to the sculpture – which means most of the concrete is hidden underneath wild plants. Mostly, you don’t literally see the sculpture, but more of a hedge of wild grasses and flowers encircling it. My father was quick to point out that this hedge of wild in the middle of a cultivated field isn’t wasted space – it actually benefits the farming activity by being a natural habitat for bumblebees, and generally increasing the field’s biodiversity.

What these hedges cover is a series of concrete walls extending horizontally along a falling slope until they reach a certain height above the ground, at which point they drop to the ground and begin extending horizontally again. The work represents the way the field appears on a topographical map – in other words, representationally, according to concept, idea. Perfect. Demonstrating the topographical representation in a concrete medium allows the actual field to show up in its organic, sinuous character – which differs essentially from the rigid straightness of the representational line.

At first, then, not being able to see the concrete lines appears to detract from the work. But soon enough one can see that the overgrown hedges are actually part of it – they help bend the concrete flatlines into the curve of the field.

In this photo it’s easy to see the curve in the lower section of this part of the work. It’s not an illusion – since the ground is curving, the height of the grasses that surround the concrete do curve – the concrete stays flat, and is only exposed at the end (bottom left). You can also see these curves reflected in the rows of planted soybeans. Except – these are not the same curves at all. The curves in the rows of plants are actually representational curves, they are planned out geometrically by the farmer who wants to plant the field in the most efficient way, to extract from it the maximum number of calories or dollars. Whereas, the curve in the wild hedge has no perfect linearity or pre-planning or expected function – the plants grow up and recoil back by the law of the propagation of life, rather than a system-thinking.

Shift is a wonderful piece – it provides a place to reflect on representation and nature, on farming and efficiency, on publicness and the secret, and on the possibility of spaces that are somehow excluded or exempt from the all-domination of the market. Yesterday was my first trip to it and I hope to visit it many more times in the years ahead.

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