The Verb List

Few artists have been so closely associated with transitive “doing” as Richard Serra. The “Verb List” he compiled over 1967-68 (“to roll/to crease/to fold,” etc.) became a banner for his generation, deferring the materials of sculpture to primary processes. So the realization, which comes slowly, that the massive steel plates of his Torqued Ellipses series do not torque in actuality but only in apparition snaps one to attention. The steel has been precision rolled into complex free-standing curves that demarcate eccentric torquing spatial volumes imagined, and quite possibly invented, by Serra.

Serra’s inspiration came from Rome, where he encountered the singular space-as-illusion effect cast under the oval dome of Borromini’s renowned San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1634-38). Sharp observation on S. Carlo, such as British architect Gerald Wellesley’s from 1932, can be aptly transposed to the experience of standing inside Torqued Ellipses: “As the eye wanders round the church [sculpture], a mysterious sense of movement is felt. It is as though the walls of a marble [steel] cavern had been pushed hither and thither by some incalculable pressure from the outside.” One should allow that corollary interior pressures are at work too, perceptible from without but no more calculable.

In his studio, Serra began to investigate how the elliptical plan might ascend and turn through space. He sheathed lead around small wood maquettes (ellipses pivoted at various angles to one another at either end of a dowel). The resulting templates showed gentle essing bands which could bend into a level bottom and top. With computer aid, Serra scaled this exercise up to industrial fabrication. Could these warps be rolled from two-inch steel plates? Given available technologies, what sizes were possible? What potential relationships would be generated between the sculptures, the exhibition space and viewers? The sculptural method Serra sets for himself can be seen as guess-work manipulating of resilient material, performed at a highly ambitious level. Meaning necessarily follows the dogged pursuit of form. This is why impressive statistics (dimensions, weight, costs, man-hours) sometimes get posed as plausible substitutes for descriptions of Serra’s work.

Undeniably, the looming materiality of Torqued Ellipses makes a powerful first impression. Three versions of Torqued Ellipse (out of the four so far fabricated) whorl over a gridded ground plane, each steel skirt both cleaved to and cleft from the hard concrete floor. Perfect ellipses are incised under the intense burden of the plate-steel edges, yet the mass also billows up, disguising gravity. This sway and loft of the Torqued Ellipses guides one’s attention to the roof and its reliable system of trussed beams. Discovering stability and solidity overhead triggers a sensory inversion, a feeling that one and all are hanging off the floor. The sculptures present forms which the eye recognizes to be logical, resolved and whole, but without meaningful grounding in the experiential world. They have an arrested pulse akin to the new images of dying stars relayed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Torqued Ellipses have that nebular warp and ineffable, incipient, monocolorings – light orange, deep brown, black.

The steel surfaces show physical mutation, evident in their rectonic strain (cross-hatched roller stress marks and the gouges of hoist clamps) and the lunging seams cut in each enclosure. The turning Torqued Ellipses deny perpendicularity and have no discernible internal relationships. The entry cuts reveal this especially where, over just a few feet of void, the continuous steel bend cannot be mentally restored. Instead, the breaks whip off at unsprung vectors. Looking into or, better, stepping over this psychosensory threshold, the circulation of space and energy within the sculptures is palpable.

This creaking containment raises the question of action anew. Further into Serra’s “Verb List” we find “to mark,” “to encircle,” “to enclose” and “to wrap,” applicable to the sheerly physical steel but not accounting for the fascination of the works. Taking deconstructive license, “to differ” (in that the steel both exemplifies and differs from its intrinsic nature) begins to explain the phenomenological play Torqued Ellipses exert on optical sense: ravishing vision, delaying it, prompting it to premature conclusions which the haptic senses (locomotion, equilibrium and the skin) dispute.

The Torqued Ellipses modulate themselves considerably with respect to human presence. Their size (Torqued Ellipse I is typical at thirteen feet high with a base ellipse of twenty by twenty-nine feet) towers over a solitary onlooker and one-on-one the sculptures appear menacing and possibly unstable. This eases considerably as other people step into the situation, although their agitation is also evident. Visitors pace restlessly in a futile search for points of comprehension or balance. This brisk circulation seems more assertive than anxious however, insisting upon the resolved experience that the sculptures imply. With many visitors likely at this highly frequented exhibition, the Dia Center becomes an uncustomary social space. The salient movements directed by the Torqued Ellipses are not formal but communal.

Resolved to carry on a traditional mantle of the sculptor, mastery of inanimate substance, Serra has met limitations in orchestrating the reception of his earlier site-specific works. Screens, obstacles and other barriers have deflected attention from the public environment to confrontation with the sculptures themselves. The penetrable Torqued Ellipses allow differences to be ascertained with mobility (and without the payoffs of comfort or satisfaction). The logic of these curious forms can be inferred but not confirmed, a quality which shifts power from the object’s “doing” to the subject’s “being.” Serra’s steel is far less imposing, less resistant than it has ever been before.

Socialist realism

The early seventeenth century in Russia was the era of the False Dimitry (the Impostor). Sots-art emerged 370 years later (in the early 1970s) as a bastard child of socialist realism, its self-styled heir, or, in Adorno’s terminology, the “secret thelos” of its visual identity. Sots-art is a hole in this identity, a gap which makes the contact with le reel – the third region (register) of psychic experience according to Lacan – possible. Unlike the communal moi, whose perception of authoritarian imagery never goes beyond identification and cathartic bonding, sots-art declares its right to separation. Sots-art works do not attract but repel the waves of the identificatory efforts of the moi. At the same time, sots-art is not at all the Impostor of identification. It is only a “shifter” – a road sign of transition from one register to another, from the Imaginary to the Symbolic order, where figurative rather than specular identification dominates. To the question, “What is the relationship between sots-art and socialist realism?,” one may reply that they diverge as much as the optic of je differs from the optic of moi. Moreover, sots-art is a way of reading a text addressed to moi through the eyes of je. If socialist realism appealed to the communal perception of images, sots-art decommunalized perception (i.e., made it more individualized). The loss of cathartic vision, or “decatharsization,” characteristic of sots-art is due to the fact that these artists thrive on alienation. And since overcoming alienation is one of the principal forms of socialist realism, yet another insurmountable precipice divides it from sots-art.

In official art, the identificatory dimension was, of course, dominant. The same is true of sots-art, simultaneously despite and due to its rivalry with socialist realism. Socialist realism and sots-art cannot be regarded as mutually exclusive concepts: their relationship is one of dialogue, not antagonism. That is why one can say that the mutual presence of the authoritarian icons and of their doubles, the icons of iconoclasm, in the works of sots-art has a carnival motivation. In a 1994 interview, Komar and Melamid (K/M) noted:

[S]ots-art could never have been invented by one artist. Only two drinking buddies such as Komar and Melamid could, over many days of talking while decorating a Young Pioneer summer camp, have decided to paint their parents in the style of a poster, and themselves as Lenin and Stalin. Sots-art emerged only because it was a communal kitchen, a conversation between two people.

The hunting instincts of K/M are focused on the visual cliches of the socialist realist canon. Their “omnivorousness” spreads to all three functional dimensions of authoritarian iconography. When, for instance, they show Lenin cutting his nails or carrying a skeleton on his back, one can see an attempt to carnivalize the utopian dimension, a desire to shorten infinity. By “reconciling” the incorporeal icon of the leader with his corporeality, with his worldly cares, and therefore with the concepts of life and death, the artists expose the seamy side of utopian rhetoric. Also noticeable here is the influence of the transreferential function, thanks to which the godlike image is placed into an unbiased context. As a result of this debasement, the icon of the leader becomes an icon of iconoclasm. However, events can also develop in the opposite direction: there have been instances in which the debasement of the leader’s image has led to its elevation, immediate or delayed. As Claude Lefort has written, “it is the the natural body [of the leader] which, because it is combined with the supernatuSral body, exercises the charm that delights the people.” This corporeal image of power can be properly called “the demonic body,” in the sense that the demonic – an intermediate stage between the human and the divine – turns out to be a means of unconscious mediation between the two.


In spite of the second of the Group’s Open Studios being quieter than last year’s, a number of the artists had gone to an enormous amount of effort and showed some interesting work. There was a more or less even split between men and women.

Catherine Baker and Alison Marchant both use the East End as source material for their work. Of all the studios, Baker’s seemed to present the most accurate impression of how the artist worked. A number of unfinished canvases, and photographs pinned to the wall suggested a possible approach to her paintings. The finished pieces incorporate images of Docklands and the East End area old and new. Each individual subject is recognisable but in the painting’s entirety the images blur or co-exist uneasily making cognition difficult. The resultant confusion and anxiety reflects Baker’s feelings about the effect that redevelopment is having on the local community.

Marchant opened up her flat as an installation, Interior to Street. The whole house formed part of the work as large images of children and Marchant’s grandmother as a young woman were projected on the walls from slides of archive photographs evoking ghostly images of the types of people who once lived in the house. Corrugated iron blotting out the light and leaves strewn across the floor acted as a reminder that the house will soon be demolished to make way for new developments. A bird-cage hanging from the ceiling projected its shadow over the image of the children reinforcing the notion of struggle for survival of generations of people in that part of London. The pieces were clean and seductively dark, like the room of a museum dimly lit, paradoxically, for conservation reasons, yet the association of images, objects and eras reminded the viewer of the uncomfortable world outside in the East End, past, present and future.

Julia Barton showed an enormous papier mache figure of a woman suspended from the ceiling by a rope which was attached to the figure like an umbilical cord. It represents a departure from her previous work both in terms of scale and sentiment. The figure looked incongruous in the studio surrounded by her more intimate objects and sculptures. Earlier work is more vulnerable and yet shows strength in the serenity of the figures. This new work is less restrained despite the use of the umbilical cord, the universally understood symbol of dependency–it is reaching out in positive expectation, the pose and the reliance on suspension inextricably linking the figure’s history and future life.

Jennifer Hawkes, also a sculptor, uses traditional materials like stone and metal. Earlier work examines the form of the materials for their own sake, but later work challenges the role of objects in their environment. She deals with large-scale issues and objects, yet the work itself is small. Memorial has the appearance of a medieval candelabra and the title suggests a monumental piece–it is small, made in the present and calls into question the use of traditional memorial symbols. Stone Window has the appearance of a model for a section of a cathedral, but it is a complete piece and is placed in a Fine Art context. Hawkes chooses carefully her materials to reflect the questions raised in the pieces re-establishing the importance placed on materials in her earlier work; for instance Memorial is made from Purbeck stone which is 193 million years old. Her drawings reinforce the issues in her work as they are a documentary of the work in progress, and she maintains that the issues arise during the course of working, not before.

Open Studios are important and are to some extent more useful to the dedicated observer–perhaps the way forward to ‘demystify the artist’ would be to hold workshops in the studios.

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