Art or engineering?
6 September, 2011
I recently had an opportunity to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The building is, of course, remarkable and worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide would say. And I was glad to have seen Jeff Koons‘ Puppy, a 12 metre high sculpture (executed in a variety of flowers on a steel substructure).
Unfortunately the top floor of the Guggenheim was closed, so I was restricted to a selection of the museum’s permanent collection. And what was on show was shockingly bad. It’s almost as if the curators had gone out of their way to select the most shallow and pretentious and obscure works possible. It’s not even that there was no conventional painting or sculpture (I didn’t really expect any), it’s just that the exhibits were not exciting or interesting in any way. Novelty, shock value and sheer scale seemed to be more important.
The main “attraction” is a giant installation by Richard Serra called “A Matter of Time”. Sponsored appropriately enough by a steel company, it consists of eight bent minimalist steel sculptures . The work weighs about 1,200 tons, is over 430 feet in length and is possibly the largest installation to ever be housed in a museum gallery.
According to the museum’s website, “The artist used traditional geometric forms and models combined with new technologies to produce unconventional shapes….The shades of color of the works change as the weathering steel undergoes a gradual oxidization process….The relationship between sculpture and the human body is explored through scale, equilibrium, weight, and tension.” Or maybe they’re just big steel sheets in wavy shapes.
While the installation of this work undoubtedly was a massive and costly project, it struck me as more of an engineering achievement than a work of art. The Guardian newspaper did not agree, and claimed that “on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century.”
And as I discovered later, Mr Serra’s steel statements are not universally appreciated. In downtown St Louis in the USA, for instance, debate is raging about the merits of a Richard Serra sculpture called Twain. One report claimed that:
“The installation is universally despised by St. Louisans, with the exception of a few art theory types who doubtless hate it too, but cannot bring themselves to admit a piece of contemporary art might be bad. Were Sam Clemens around to see his namesake he would doubtless sue the artist for defamation of character. Newcomers to the city without exception mistake the rusted steel slabs for a patch of blighted landscape. Others believe the work’s graffiti-scarred walls (much of the graffiti reads “Get rid of this!”) mask a sloppy construction area. Serra sculptures have been knowingly and legally removed from other cities after long and persistent public outcry, but in St. Louis the pressure from local art groups not to give in to the philistines is strong and has thus far carried the day.”
The Twain installation demonstrates how any piece by a famous artist can generate its own mystique among art insiders, even if it is dull, ugly, monstrous and non-challenging. And people now feel they must see “A Matter of Time” in Bilbao because of the narrative surrounding it, and not for any intrinsic worth or because it gives them any great pleasure. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.