But in contemporary art terms, eight foot is minute. ‘What they are are vessels that you walk into’,12 Richard Serra has said of the looming, labyrinthine corridors and coils of steel that now fill a gallery at the Guggenheim Bilbao, some 430 by 80 feet wide (fig.4). Walking into those vessels, you submit to the mute yet muscular cliffs of raw metal as if to geological limitations constraining your movement. You are brought up close to – right into, in fact – a great and daunting, continually unfolding otherness. It is a matter of ‘being inside of a contained space where, if any content is going to be revealed at all, you have to pay attention to every part of the surface that’s surrounding you’, says Serra.13 To ask for mere ‘meaning’ when it comes to an experience on this scale seems almost trivial, but the title of the ensemble – The Matter of Time – tells us in part what the artist had in mind. This most magisterial of contemporary sculptors was putting out a hand to apprehend things too big to catch in a single image: not only physical weight and the experience of passage, but his own capacious, kingly strength.14 The massive materialist’s meditation overpowers the viewer self-consciously, intent on its very own power.
And yet this permanent exhibit inside the Guggenheim could be seen in terms of retreat. Produced between 1994 and 1997, it followed a much publicised legal contest which Serra fought and lost, his struggle to keep Tilted Arc, a 120-foot curved wall of steel originally erected in 1979, in place in a New York square. Serra’s sculpture presented a neighbourhood public with an obstruction that not only was daunting and resistant to interpretation but which they could not avoid as they walked the street: in effect, an uncontrollable uncontrolled. Their rejection of a challenging, ‘advanced’ sculpture has had repercussions.15 The past twenty years have seen a plethora of outsize outdoor sculptures (Jeff Koons and Anthony Gormley are familiar field-leaders), but by one means or another these works mostly seek to ingratiate, modulating the sublimity their scale proposes.