“I felt …”: Thoughts on Richard Serra and #SerraQatar

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Photos by Molly Waterman

If you follow me on Instagram you already got an eyefull of our trip to Doha a couple weeks ago. We were there, basically, to see a whole lot of Richard Serra, which we did over three days. I wrote a piece about it for Hyperallergic, which they posted last week. I wanted to get to the bottom of the Qatar Museums Authority’s social media campaign surrounding the work — some of which, including the two pieces featured in photos above, are permanent installations. The QMA’s website for the Serra shows encourages viewers to register their feelings on encountering the art. At first I thought that was a strange request for a conceptual artist:

The emphasis here on affect responds directly to the QMA’s public relations and social media campaigns surrounding these works, which ask viewers to tweet about the work using the phrase “I felt” and the hashtag #serraqatar. Or you can log in to the QMA website and record your feelings there, where they will be incorporated into a constantly updated visualization of the feelings of all respondents.

On one hand, the QMA’s approach is a brilliant piece of marketing, prescribing for its public the desired response to a Serra piece: an examination of one’s emotional reception of the work. The injunction to feel — and to feel as others feel — aims to disarm the knee-jerk response of those whose unfamiliarity with the work or hostility to modernist sculpture might cause them to reject it outright. The leading question “How will you feel?” functions as an invitation to visit the shows and experience them in person, as does the social media impulse not to miss out on what others are doing. But the turn to affect or emotion also seems to forestall the intellectual work provoked by conceptual art. To say you feel small or powerful or lost seems to be a lesser-order response than to talk about how a work reshapes the spatial or temporal dimensions of an environment or calls into question the tradition of monumental public art itself.

Ultimately, though, I come around to the idea that gauging your feelings is a perfectly appropriate thing to do in response to Serra’s work. To get there I take a detour through the controversy surrounding Serra’s Tilted Arc, installed in lower Manhattan’s courthouse district for most of the 1980s before being removed to appease people who hated it. Read the rest over there, but feel free to come back here and let me know what you think. What was your first encounter with Serra? How does his work make you feel? Make you feel like visiting Doha maybe? I, for one, can’t wait to go back, and only wish I’d made it to Manhattan in time to see this beauty:

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    11 responses to ““I felt …”: Thoughts on Richard Serra and #SerraQatar”

    1. LP says:

      I love the Richard Serra at LACMA, which always makes me want to wander through and put my hands all over it. I like the juxtaposition of industrial steel with those luscious curves — it’s simultaneously confusing and exciting.

      Also love your pix of the works in the desert. They kind of remind me of Arcosanti, which Stella took me to way back in the way back. These carefully constructed, industrial-looking behemoths out in the middle of nowhere feel so austere and lonely, like images of a lost past or a bleak future, I’m not sure which.

    2. Bryan says:

      Can’t believe I’ve never heard of Arcosanti. That place looks great! We’ll have to add it to desert pilgrimage lists, along with Marfa and Lightning Fields, neither of which we’ve ever done. The big piece at LACMA is related to one of the huge pieces on temporary display while we were in Qatar. I love those canyons — free-standing, still feeling a little dangerous, but so much fun. Charlie had a blast running through: that was probably his favorite part of the three days.

    3. Bryan says:

      PS Molly’s photos are great, aren’t they? It struck me while I was out in the desert that part of what Serra’s good for, these days, is letting people experiment with photography. It’s not possible to capture the pieces in a single photo, but you can still make nice photos using them, which I imagine makes people more connected to the pieces than they would feel otherwise. I still see/hear occasional objections to his work — how masculine it is, how expensive — but I really have no reservations.

      Doha was great, btw. We saw lots of other cool work there too. The IM Pei Museum of Islamic Art is a knock-out. I’ll be happy to go back if someone wants to visit and add it to the itinerary.

    4. Farrell Fawcett says:

      Bryan, your Hyperallergic post is really fantastic. So helpful in getting at the many angles of Serra’s work in Qatar. And then this post for contextualizing his current work with his ancient NY installation. Molly’s photos are also fantastic and helpful. I can’t help but relate those 1 km-spread-of-desert installation steel towers as a conversation with the Lightening Fields. Having walked that equivalently remote kilometer of NM desert. I wonder what long-gone Walter would think of Serra’s work? Praise/derision? But I think it’s not fair to carp until you’ve seen it in person. I’d love to experience Serra’s work like you did in the context of Qatar. How lucky you are. And thanks for reminding me what a cool place hyperallergic is. More posts please!

    5. Bryan says:

      Thanks, FF. Looking at those old b&w photos of Tilted Arc (more here) makes me realize how very 70s/80s that piece was — of a piece, really, with the WTC. Funny how both have been removed, and now photos with either in them makes lower Manhattan pre-1990s seem a little quaint in its modernist giganticism.

    6. GF says:

      Because I’m less of a visual art maven than the rest of you, my first encounter was probably at DIA Beacon when we took the train up from Marble Hill of a summer afternoon two or three years ago. Part of the experience of it is the undercurrent of terror that it’s going to fall and squish you, right? I hate the idea of a big, weird public art piece coming down because some coalition of Helen Lovejoys doesn’t find it soothing, but I also have to admit that the pictures I found that showed the whole plaza made it look ugly in a non-fascinating way. I liked the stuff at DIA, though.

    7. Bryan says:

      GF — I do love the Benjamin Buchloh quote I cited: that Tilted Arc’s opponents were identifying with the aggressor if they preferred that plaza as it was. It’s funny that all the times I’ve ever biked through the courthouse plaza it feels like a wasteland — mostly because nobody hangs out there except miserable people whose family members are being processed, juries, and lawyers. It’s sad. I love the idea that Serra got that commission in the first place. But I do get it, too, that most people would find it disruptive — and indeed, it was designed to disrupt.

      Another piece of Serra’s was removed in the 80s: St. Johns Rotary Arc. I don’t know the full story about why it came down, but it looks to me like this piece was more fluidly integrated into its surroundings. I wish I had seen either of these pieces in lower Manhattan, in the wild. I have this print hanging in my office.

      You’re totally right about the danger of Serra being part of the fun. In the early days the danger was more literal. Those props are still terrifying! But I also love the fact that with the gigantic canyons — the newish ones — kids run around through them, people are allowed to touch them, etc. It’s a great way to experience art.

    8. Ruben says:

      Most of my exposure to Serra has come through LACMA. It’s been fun seeing them anew through the kids; what was imposing, austere, and beautiful to me could suddenly become a place to run and play hide and seek.

      Love the Qatar pictures. Couldn’t help but think of Kubrick’s monolith and Ozymandias.

    9. Bryan says:

      Yeah, Serra’s great for kids: they can touch, they can run. I’m not sure I’d want them playing around the old-school prop pieces, the houses of cards — but the canyon pieces? Perfect for kids. How is your gaggle anyway? How old are they? I’m afraid to ask.

    10. Ruben says:

      Just turned 11 and going into middle school next year, but that is more stressful for mom and dad than for them. Thanks for asking and any advice you have is welcome!

    11. Bryan says:

      HOLY SHIT. Time flies. Ha ha, with ours now both leaving home (the girls, that is), I’m not sure I can remember 11, but I can extend my sympathies about the teen years that will soon be upon you. 11. Wow.

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