Breaking and Entering

Mary Walling Blackburn

Reviews / 12.11.2009
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Everywhere only a touching: Breaking and Entering Richard Serra's pseudo-Bellamy in the South Bronx

I like to say there is no penetration, that penetration in a certain way has no proper meaning. To penetrate is to enter into the internal structure of the matter, but in physical love as well as in spiritual, it is the same - there is no penetration into, there is everywhere only a touching.

- Jean-Luc Nancy, 'Love and Community: A Roundtable Discussion'

The Old South Bronx Ferry Terminal, New York City, April 2009. Photograph: Mary Walling Blackburn

Housed in an industrial yard in New York is what some believe to be one of Richard Serra's series of torqued spirals - perhaps it is Bellamy (2001): simultaneously abandoned, stored and de facto displayed. The twenty-ton sculpture of five-centimetre thick steel is visible from Google Maps, if one traces the East River northward from Manhattan's eastern border to the Bronx. From the air, the singularity of the form is obscured by context: white storage containers, another (dismantled) steel sculpture, waterway, warehouse. On land, I slide between sections of chain-link fence that enclose the sculpture. I jump another fence. I cut nothing; I harm what? Neither fence nor sculpture is altered; all property is materially intact. Sunlight floods an interior created by four-metre-high walls, a spring breeze blows through. The surface of the weathered steel is rough against the palm. A cat wends its way in and out again.

Eighty minutes north, three torqued ellipses are enclosed within the Dia: Beacon. This series is materially kin to the questionable Bellamy, as well as to Sylvester (2001), another torqued spiral. Sylvester (located in the southern US in a private collection) and Bellamy were first unveiled at New York's Gagosian Gallery in 'Torqued Spirals, Toruses and Spheres' in October 2001. One is named after the British art historian David Sylvester, the other after Serra's early dealer Richard Bellamy. Now, eight years after it was first shown, what is being called Bellamy by intrepid boaters, trespassers and bloggers is scored by bird droppings. The word 'Harlem' is faintly scratched into the surface. Wooden shims, strategically wedged underneath specific points, keep it level. The works stored within the museum, meanwhile, are clean and structurally stable. The stillness of the space and the deep shadows cast by the steel forms communicate something of the mausoleum (perhaps, a shrine to thing-ness). Unlike the torqued spiral by the river, shifting light and air currents are drastically curtailed inside the museum. No crane, framed by undulating curves, dangles overhead.

At the Bronx site, an idle barbeque is placed squarely against the fence on the south side of the sculpture. The many couples at Dia's torqued ellipses snapping pictures of one another, with their mobiles, are not present. Alone, I follow the forceful curvature of Bellamy and stand silently in the sunlit centre, my body oriented toward the sound of a worker cutting things and moving them somewhere beyond my sightline. This worker also functions unofficially as a guard. His role differs from that of a museum invigilator, who simply prevents us from touching the work. At the Bronx site, the security guard's job is to prevent penetration of the entire site. The borders of the object begin to include everything it touches. The viewer is ensconced but not absorbed; the object is entered but not altered. But during my visit, the guard never approaches the interior of the sculpture, and so this spectator remains at large, hovering in the space between seeing and having, beholding and holding, finally settling on neither.

I use these contrasts to suggest that within the context of the art world and its market, the ability to see an object often hinges on whether those who own it wish that it be publicly visible. Some objects float solely in the field of vision of those who profit, spiritually or materially, from its ownership. When I come into 'illegal' contact with the object, but refuse to take or tag it. I challenge the notion of ownership itself - in contrast to thieves or taggers, who only reverse the dynamic of possession. I can see without having; I can behold without holding, and this spectatorship stripped of hierarchical agenda is perverse. This bare state reconfigures our desires in a way that obstinately refutes normative behaviours.

Our affection for trespass is sometimes an extension of voyeurism, because of the ways in which possession and looking become entangled. Whereas trespass can be framed as a simple desire to assert agency, looking without the right to look is, at its core, a territorial and terrestial pleasure. Within this perversity, the viewer gains new possibilities; he or she determines an ethos outside of the law: to disturb without harm, to resist exclusivity by touching at the threshold. An extended glance at a strangely solitary torqued spiral can unpack the pathologies of preservation. By unlawfully entering the torque's spiral, I become aware of a collective neurosis, an unmitigated faith in the constancy of the object.

We wonder what, exactly, can release us from our inviolable faith in the permanence of objects. Can we undo that perception without setting everything afire, without uprising, without turning objects to dust? While imagining a gentler route towards revolutionising our relationship with objects, perhaps we should consider the role of the stranger, someone who historically operates on the threshold of associations, unknown and unquantified. Perhaps we can imagine a benevolent outsider - one who visits without desire to possess for him or herself.

I recall a transformative liaison between two Native American strangers -- a hitchhiker and driver in Sherman Alexie's novel The Toughest Indian in the World (2001). The hitchhiker, a scarred boxer travelling between unsanctioned reservation matches, is picked up by the driver and, while spending the night in a roadside motel, the two experience an awkward, unexpected moment of sexual intimacy. For the driver, a reporter who feels deracinated, the encounter is not fuelled by sexual lust; rather he acquiesces to the boxer's advances out of a belief that a stranger can restore a lost object. In this case that object is an absent racial identity that the driver believes may be reinstated as a result of the physical penetration of his form.

The driver tells the hitcher: 'You would've been a warrior in the old days, enit? You would have been a killer. You would have stolen everybody's goddamn horses. That would have been you. You would've been it.' The story suggests that within literature, and perhaps outside of the text, the stranger has the power to pass through the lives of others, bringing about a sort of rupture that re-introduces the subject to him or herself, in ways both sexual and political. Is this a feckless construct that rarely surfaces in the lived world? And is race just passing through humans the way that ownership just passes through objects as well?

*

Despite its forty tons, the Serra sculpture beside the Bronx waterfront seems unlikely to remain there permanently. That said, the future owner may or may not honour the wishes of the artist in regards to site and conservation. In the United States, the buyer is not legally bound to preserve a purchased object - it is theirs to destroy at will. This liberty of the owner has rankled Serra for decades: Slat (1984) and Tilted Arc (1981) have already been removed or destroyed by their respective legal owners. Sometimes substantial pieces of art simply disappear while in the possession of an institution. Equal-Parallel/Guernica-Bengasi (1986), a 38 ton steel sculpture, was lost in storage by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and is yet to be found. Given these lapses, the claim of fetishism as central to ownership hardly seems constant in its application - rather, absolute right becomes the justification for behaviour that can swing between grandiose public display of possession (escalating the market value of the work) and demolition.

The condition of not owning harbours a possibility of the viewer and object meeting on equal terms, without mastery, exploitation or control. But removing an object from one hierarchical sphere often just moves it into another. The former Soviet Union's attempt to detach private property from a social hierarchy and place it into a collectivised structure only put it under the control of an authoritarian - and hierarchical - central state.

But before that experiment was revealed to be untenable, utopian thinkers were hopeful about the possibilities of changing the relationship between objects and nations. In 1925, Aleksandr Rodchenko declared that objects can be comrades and 'that the light from the East is in the new relation to the person, to woman, to things. Our things in our hands must be equals...' The proposed treaty of sorts (between object and subject) hoped to dissolve the difference between thing and being, in order to dismantle the racial, financial and sexual inequities between humans.

Eighty-five years have passed and on the banks of New York's East River this trespassing stranger, a citizen within a hyper-capitalist nation, enters this torqued volume with gentleness, without mark. But still, it's a new relation without being made a comrade. If it were my comrade, I would see it again.

Although Rodchenko's pronouncement is often quoted, it generally is truncated just after 'equals'. In full it reads: 'Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades, and not these black and mournful slaves, as they are here.' Many writers, when tracing the trajectory of Constructivist artists, omit rather than respond to the manner in which Rodchenko likens unequal humans to unequal things. His racialised metaphor overtly traces the colonial legacy of the African as the exploited Other, and it shocks. It shocks to have the racist dimensions of labour unsparingly laid out. Here, Rodchenko refuses to conceal that certain human demographics are categorically made into 'mere things'. Twin mythologies - one being our romance with capital and the other our narratives of race - are indicted together because the liberation of both the human object and the inhuman object are shown to be contingent upon one another.

But given the Soviet Union's collapse, Rodchenko's project leaves us no trustworthy blueprint towards a new relation to the object. I still wonder: how do I touch what isn't mine, be it art or land or body? Hey Stranger, how to learn to articulate a skin and sweat language that remakes consumption, collection and conservation? The stranger, as model, can be a pedagogical instrument, teaching me to disrupt the inherited given of what exactly an object is and forgo the directives issued by formal institutions and established modes of resistance. A stranger may ask us to imagine these disruptions taking the form of trespass, of a radical perversion of both capitalism and communism.

*

In Marie Lorenz's The Tide and Current Taxi (2005-ongoing),[ii] Lorenz consults the tides and currents of New York City's waterways in order to deliver her passengers, free of charge, to the destination of their choice. She transports them in a small boat she constructed herself. Together, passenger and captain hazard cargo lanes, wind and current and, in some instances, the police. Sometimes they sink. More often, they land and document. There are antecedents to this project: Mierle Laderman Ukeles's MARRYING THE BARGES: A BARGE BALLET (1984), for example, which was made up of two tugboats and six New York City Department of Sanitation barges in the Hudson River. Ukeles, like Lorenz, was committed to an ephemeral site-specific performance made of humble materials, situated on the water and free of charge. Both Lorenz and Ukeles test the limits of criminality; how far and deep can one go without punishment; can we touch up against the law and escape unscathed?[iii]

Several years ago, Lorenz and the artist Lan Tuazon stumbled upon what we are calling Bellamy's torqued spiral. Tuazon writes, 'We dreamed of ways of stealing the massive steel work and decided that moving it even ten feet would be enough to claim it as our own.'[iv] They swapped robbery for curating; structure for surface. On 27 August 2006, 'The Invisible Magnet Show', a group show consisting of seventeen artists, began at 7am at the industrial yard and ended several hours later. Tuazon describes their curatorial intent on her website:

We took our chance encounter with the Torqued Ellipse as an opportunity to respond to Serra and his concepts about the object, specifically his idea that any use of art is a misuse, and that sculpture is not architecture. Our intent was to carry out an act of conceptual vandalism on his work by manipulating its meaning. We sent out a call for site-specific art that would respond to the sculpture, with the single requirement that all artworks be magnetic and therefore temporary. This was a precautionary measure that guaranteed easy installation under precarious conditions while leaving the Serra sculpture intact and unblemished… We misused Serra's sculpture like a refrigerator door and claimed it as a found site.

The documentation of the works installed at the show illustrates their surface violations. But excluding Virginia Poundstone's delicate spray of glowing coloured magnets that emphasise the contour of the four metre pitched wall, the works are, in the main, decorative. Tuazon's rallying cry for sculpture made for a refrigerator door is taken to heart. The aesthetic of Paper Rad,[v] a northeast American art collective, which could be described as fast, fluorescent, childlike and cheerful, was borrowed by many of the artists in this show. But a deeper misuse, a more strategic intrusion, would have accomplished more towards dismantling minimalism. Why not aim for revealing an alternate relation to form (and a conjoined essentialism) other than a surface resistance? In L'Intrus (The Intruder, 2000), Nancy claims that once the stranger has arrived, 'if he remains foreign - his coming will not cease; nor will it cease being in some respect an intrusion…'[vi] But how could these artists remain foreign if they arrived as denizens of the art world?

When considering Lorenz's work, this particular magnetic gesture - meaning these random objects fastened to abandoned object - is at odds with her practice. The invisible trajectories of her boat, and the places it takes bodies, are not so far from Serra's own rapport with movement, derived from Yvonne Rainer's mid-1960s treatises. Like Serra, Lorenz's work, by her own proclamation, focuses on balance and form. Like Serra and Rainer, she engages a form that will never complete itself: light, salt, air and time undo the artists' hand, his and hers. But despite their diverse attentions to the ephemeral intimacies of the body in relationship to industrial landscapes, Lorenz, Serra or Rainer can hardly be called strangers to institutions (in this instance, established art museums, galleries and granting foundations) and the power relations they demand when they require the artist to cultivate visibility, produce documentation and institute repetition in production. The seventeen artists in 'The Invisible Magnet Show' were not strangers to the site; they were familiar with Serra's works, and even the dealers and critics the potentially misidentified spirals were named after. The show's inclusion within the art world is made evident in its typical processes: an artist's call, a show flyer, and copious documentation for CVs and websites. These art world emissaries, issuing forth from a system where rebellions compost into homage, rediscovered what Tuazon deems a 'found site'. Really? Found? This generational power struggle over authority will only replicate hierarchies, if it is only waged within a 'family' of sorts.

Transgressive landings and occupations at the Serra site, which can reveal a disturbed ecology of things and humans, or the transmogrification of humans as things, has yet to come. Strangers, come. The smartest stranger can undo the familiar with gestures so subtle, so pleasurable, the bulwark hardly realises it has come undone.

Footnotes
  1. Jean-Luc Nancy in a round-table discussion with Avital Ronell and Wolfgang Schirmacher at the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee Switzerland, August 2001. Also available at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/nancy/nancy-roundtable-discussion2001.html.

  2. Sherman Alexie, The Toughest Indian in the World, New York: Grove Atlantic Press, 2001.

  3. www.marielorenz.com/tideandcurrenttaxi.php

  4. A triangulation between Ukeles, Lorenz and Serra is underscored by Tom Finkelpearl's interview with Ukeles for Dialogues in Public Art (2001). Ukeles relayed: 'I asked to work with the best tugboat captain in New York Harbor. I said to this guy when I sat down with him 'What have you always wanted to do if the Coast Guard wasn't watching you?' He responded immediately, 'I always wanted to make a figure eight across the Hudson River.' But he took out his tide book, looked up the date we had picked, and said, 'It's too dangerous. I'll do a spiral.' For me, the spiral was perfect.' T. Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2001, p.315.

  5. http://lantuazon.wordpress.com/invisble-graffiti-magnet-show/

  6. http://paperrad.org/

  7. Jean-Luc Nancy, L'Intrus, Paris: Galilée, 2000, p.1.