The Yale Lecture – Richard Serra


My decision early on, to build site-specific works in steel took me out of the traditional studio. The studio has been replaced by urbanism and industry. I rely upon the industrial sector to build my work, upon structural and civil engineers, upon surveyors, laborers, transporters, riggers, construction workers, etcetera . . . Steel mills, shipyards and fabricating plants have become my on the road extended studios. I began to work steel mills when I was seventeen to support my education. These mills have since provided a source for material, inspiration, fabrication and construction.

Usually I analyse the capacity of a mill, a plant, a fabricator; study their equipment, look to their processing of materials, their manufacturing of products, study their tools, whether it be a forge, a roller, a brake, whether they are making ingots, nosecones, turbines, shells or pistons. Whatever is made and how it is formed becomes a handbook of my concern. I consider their most advanced processes and how I can interact with them. I try to extend their tool potential in relation to what I need to accomplish. To be able to enter into a steel mill, a shipyard, a thermal plant and extend both their work and my needs is a way of becoming an active producer within a given technology, not a manipulator or consumer of a found industrial product.

The history of welded sculpture in this century has had little influence on my work. Most traditional sculpture until the mid-century was based on a relationship of part to whole. That is, the steel elements were collaged pictorially and compositionally together. Most of the welding was a way of gluing and adjusting parts which through their internal structure were not self supporting. This is clearly evidenced in most Modernist sculpture, be it Gonzalez, Picasso, Smith or Calder. To work with steel not as a picture making element, but as a building material in terms of mass, weight, counterbalance, loadbearing capacity, point load, compression, friction and statics has been totally divorced from the history of sculpture, however, it has found direct application within the histories of architecture, technology and industrial building. It is the logic of towers, dams, silos, bridges, skyscrapers, tunnels, etcetera . . . Sculptors for the most part have ignored the results of the industrial revolution failing to investigate these fundamental processes and methods of steel making, engineering and construction. The builders I have looked to have therefore been those who explored the potential of steel as one of the most advanced materials for construction: Roebling, Maillart, Mies van der Rohe.

In most of my work the construction and decision-making processes are revealed. Material, formal, contextual decisions are self-evident. The concept of site-specific sculpture has nothing to do with opinion or belief. It is a concept which can be verified in each case. The process of conception can be reconstructed and the specificity of a work in relation to its site can be measured by its effects on the site. The fact that the technological process is revealed depersonalizes and demythologizes the idealization of the sculptor’s craft. The work does not enter into the fictitious realm of the ‘master’. I would just as soon have the work available to anyone’s inspection. The evidence of the process can become part of the content. Not that it is the content, but it is discernible for anyone who wants to be involved with that aspect of my working process. My works do not signify any esoteric self-referentiality. The problem of self-referentiality does not pose itself once a work enters the public domain. How the work alters the site is the issue, not the persona of the author.

Site-specific works deal with the environmental components of given places. The scale, size and location of site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban or landscape or architectural enclosure. The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site. My works never decorate, illustrate or depict a site.

The specificity of site-oriented works means that they are conceived for, dependent on and inseparable from their location. Scale, size and placement of sculptural elements result from an analysis of the particular environmental components of a given context. The preliminary analysis of a given site takes into consideration not only formal but social and political characteristics of the site. Site-specific works invariably manifest a value judgement about the larger social and political context of which they are part. Based on the interdependence of work and site, site-specific works address the content and context of their site critically. Site-specific solutions demonstrate the possibility of seeing the simultaneity of newly developed relationships between sculpture and context. A new behavioural and perceptual orientation to a site demands a new critical adjustment to one’s experience of the place. Site-specific works primarily engender a dialogue with their surroundings. Site-specific works emphasize the comparison between two separate languages (their own language and the language of their surroundings). Unlike Modernist works that give the illusion of being autonomous from their surroundings, and which function critically only in relation to the language of their own medium, site-specific works emphasise the comparison between two separate languages that can therefore use the language of one to criticize the language of the other. To quote Bertrand Russell on this problem: ‘Every language has a structure about which one can say nothing in that language. There must be another language, dealing with the structure of the first and processing a new structure about which one cannot say anything except in a third language – and so forth.’

It is the explicit intention of site-specific works to alter their context. Le Corbusier understood this as early as 1932. He wrote in a letter to Victor Nekrasov: ‘You have in Moscow, in the churches of the Kremlin, many magnificent Byzantine frescoes. In certain cases, these paintings do not undermine the architecture. But I am not sure they add to it, either; this is the whole problem of the fresco. I accept the fresco not as something which gives emphasis to the wall, but on the contrary as a means to destroy the wall violently, to remove any notion of its stability, weight, etcetera. I accept Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel, which destroys the wall; and I accept the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling as well, which completely distorts the very notion of ceiling. The dilemma is simple: if the Sistine Chapel’s wall and ceiling were intended to be preserved as form, they should not have been painted with frescoes, it means that someone wanted to remove forever their original architectural character and create something else, which is acceptable.’

This concept ought to be understood and protected. However, the contextual issues of site-specific works remain problematic. Site specificity is not a value in itself. Works which are built within the contextual frame of governmental, corporate, educational and religious institutions run the risk of being read as tokens of those institutions. One way of avoiding ideological cooptation is to choose leftover sites which cannot be the object of ideological misinterpretation. However, there is no neutral site. Every context has its frame and ideological overtones. It is a matter of degree. But there are sites where it is obvious that artwork is being subordinated to/accommodated to/adapted to/subservient to/required to/useful to … In such cases it is necessary to work in opposition to the constraints of the context, so that the work cannot be read as an affirmation of questionable ideologies and political power. I am not interested in art as affirmation or in art as manifestation of complicity.

I think that if sculpture has any potential at all, it has the potential to work in contradiction to the places and spaces where it is created. I am interested in work where the artist is a maker of ‘anti-environment’. This is impossible if the sculpture is built in the studio, then taken out of the studio and adjusted to a site. You can’t build work in one context and indiscriminately place it in another. Portable objects moved from one place to another often fail for this reason. The history of Modernist public sculpture offers countless examples of these site-adjusted follies. An iron deer on a front lawn has more contextual significance than most arbitrarily placed site adjusted sculptures. I must say that I have not fully escaped this dilemma, since I receive few site-specific commissions but have a desire to work continuously.

Large scale site-specific projects which do not allow for secondary sale are hardly ever considered to be a worthy investment. For that reason the concept of site specificity and corporate sponsorship are antithetical. Corporate sponsorship for the art breeds economic opportunism and reinforces palatable artistic conventions. Artists who willingly accept corporate support likewise submit to corporate control. In effect, they become puppet creators. Their hands and minds are set in motion by external strings: supply upon demand, accommodation with consent. Corporate funded artworks are often advertised as public service. Slogans such as ‘art for the people’ mask the cynicism of commercial and political manipulation, which would like to make believe that we all live in a homogenous society of consumers. Cultural and educational inequalities based on economic inequality are a reality which needs to be revealed and not glossed over by a populist notion of art for the people. This aspiration of art cannot be to serve and thereby reaffirm the status quo by delivering products which give people what they want and supposedly need. Marketing is based on this premise. By mimicking the strategies of the media, Warhol became the master of art as a commercial enterprise. The more one betrays one’s language to commercial interests, the greater the possibility that those in authority will reward one’s efforts. If artifacts do not accord with the consumerist needs of people, if they don’t submit to exploitation and marketing strategies, they can be voted ad hoc into oblivion. Tolerance exists only for officially sanctioned ideas. Submission is at the core of the problem. For sure there is relief in submission to authority. But how much of our autonomy do we cede to a government for example that pursues policies which we find contradictory to our basic beliefs. At one point one must say that such and such a policy is nonsense. If one remains silent and does not speak out, it is tantamount to abdicating responsibility […]

Richard SERRA, Yale University in January 1990.

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