Arts·Commotion

Richard Serra's sculpture Shift is invisible — unless you're looking for it

CBC Radio One producer Lise Hosein joins Elamin to talk about visiting Shift, one of Richard Serra’s site-specific works

Art historian Lise Hosein pays tribute to the late American sculptor Richard Serra

US sculptor Richard Serra poses in front of one of his works featured at the new Guggenheim Bilbao Museum exhibition, "The Matter of Time"
US sculptor Richard Serra poses in front of one of his works featured at the new Guggenheim Bilbao Museum exhibition, "The Matter of Time" (RAFA RIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, American sculptor Richard Serra died at the age of 85.

Serra was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest of his generation and is best known for his steel sculptures that feel all-encompassing. Canadians might be most familiar with an installation called Tilted Spheres, which is displayed in Terminal One at the Toronto Pearson International Airport .

Richard Serra's Tilted Spheres, in Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport in Toronto
Richard Serra's Tilted Spheres, in Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport in Toronto (CBC News)

Steel became Serra's medium of choice, and his use of the material caused the space in and around his sculptures to distort. His work has been displayed at prestigious art museums like the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Gagosian Gallery.

Another piece by Serra that is more obscure sits in a field in Southern Ontario, near King City. Titled Shift, the site-specific installation consists of six slabs of concrete, each over 90 feet long. 

Looking down on Richard Serra's Shift, a site-specific installation built into a potato field.
Looking down on Richard Serra's Shift, a site-specific installation built into a potato field. (CBC Arts)

Lise Hosein, a CBC Radio senior producer and art historian, has made the trek to see Shift in person. She joins host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to pay tribute to Serra and talk about her experience visiting Shift

In a potato field north of Toronto, a massive hidden artwork teaches us about site-specific art

3 years ago
Duration 8:22
To reach "Shift," the beautiful and somewhat forgotten work by Richard Serra, you have to go on a bit of a quest.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, plus a discussion about the effects of parenting influencers, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast on your favourite podcast player.

LISTEN | Today's episode on YouTube:

Elamin: Richard Serra is someone whose work has been shown at the biggest, most important galleries in the world. We're talking with the Guggenheim in Spain. So how did one of the most celebrated American sculptors of his time end up laying down these slabs of concrete in a farmer's field north of Toronto?   

Lise: In 1970, Serra asked to visit the land of this art collector named Roger Davidson. That was in King City, and I believe at the time it was a potato field. So he went there with an artist named Joan Jonas. As they walked this clearing, the topography of the land is such that there are points where you can't see each other that well. Then later, you reappear. So they walk to the farthest point in the field at which they could still see each other. And Richard Serra built his installation shift around that experience.

Elamin: Describe the landscape around Shift. How do you get to Shift and what's around it there? 

Lise: There's a subdivision that borders Shift. But between the subdivision and Shift, there's some marshy land, there's farmers fields, there's a lot of bees and birds. But it opens out into this clearing where if you know what you're looking for, you'll see Shift. If you don't know what you're looking for, you might just think you're in a field. 

Elamin: I'm fascinated by the idea of a lot of people just passing by it and not necessarily knowing the thing that they're actually staring at. Like, if you don't know that it's a piece of artwork, what would be your relationship to it? What would you see when you arrive on the site?  

Lise: I like that it's been called our Stonehenge because it would seem like a very mysterious set of two concrete walls emerging out of the ground. But it's something that I think Richard has certainly meant for us to see. 

Now, you're not supposed to see it. It's on private property. But I think it feels like a real part of the landscape. So if you know what you're looking for, it's quite meaningful. And if you don't, maybe quite mysterious. 

Elamin: So you get to this installation — allegedly — through whatever path you took to get there. When you saw it, how did it make you feel? How do you experience that installation?

Lise: I think part of the process of getting there — don't go there — but if you do go there, it takes a little work to get there. And then you emerge into this clearing. There are trees with whooping cranes nesting, so there's a real peace in the space there. There's something that feels quite magical about it. And as you walk along these walls, you're taking that same path that Serra and Joan Jonas took. So there's a sense of history. Also, you feel the time that's passed. The concrete walls that rise out of the ground, they've taken some wear and tear over the years. So you really feel that sense of the time that's gone by. It's a kind of a magical experience.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.


Panel produced by Stuart Berman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Zhu is an Associate Producer for CBC. She currently works at CBC Arts and Syndication. She has bylines in CBC Books, Chatelaine, Healthy Debate, re:porter, Exclaim! Magazine and other publications. Follow Eva on X (formerly Twitter) @evawritesthings

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