Simone Estrin’s 26-minute documentary, A Shift in the Landscape, is now playing at the Ryerson Image Centre’s (RIC) Student Gallery. As soon as the house lights dim, the colossal abstract sculptures of Richard Serra flood the screen. It is an immediate meditation on art and how it inhabits the environment.
Shortly after Estrin cycles through several handheld shots of Serra’s famous works, the viewer is transported above a moving field outside of King City, Ontario. Slowly, the field gives way to a zig-zagging set of concrete walls. This is Shift, one of Richard Serra’s earliest and most important works – a work that is almost as rarely seen from above as it is from below.
A Shift in the Landscape focuses on the battle that surrounds Shift. It is unseen for a reason. In the 1970s, shortly after its construction, the plot was sold to a private real estate development company. Rather than keep the space accessible to the public, the developer built a fence around the property. A large anti-trespassing sign adorns one of the property’s key access points.
While a group of King City residents and councillors stand committed to opening up the sculpture to the public, it still remains locked away. Luckily, a designation was passed to prevent it from being destroyed, but that still doesn’t guarantee its availability to the public.
The reason why this battle is so relevant is because Shift demands to be experienced in person – it is an active work of art that is built in to the subtle contours of the rural landscape it occupies. As the legendary art critic Rosalind Krauss remarks in the film, Serra created the work so visitors to the site can embody his vision as they walk the land that leads up to it. To Serra “the subject matter is your [the participant’s] experience.” Thus, any depiction of the sculpture on camera diminishes the real life effect of the work itself.
Estrin never tries to replace the experience of visiting Shift in her film. Instead, A Shift in the Landscape showcases Shift’s importance as a singular work of art. Serra, interviewed for the film, explains his creative process in detail. Serra’s presence guides the spirit of the film. He is shown at a desk, clad in a black sweater, in an all white room. Behind him is a poster-sized diagram of Shift.
At one point, Serra sketches the work from memory on to a notebook and holds it in front of the camera. He appears as an accomplished master in reflection. His words are at once practical and profound. In the moments where he narrates the sweeping images of the sculpture, his voice pierces through the screen and into the viewer’s consciousness.
Shift, and where it stands, wholly represents the debate around where much of today’s art fits in today’s economic climate – its status wholly dependent on the monetary interests of private business. There will be a number of difficult conversations ahead as the value of the land continues to rise. Hopefully, the owners will prioritize the enrichment of public minds over personal riches. Because, what they possess, as explained by the eloquent King City councillor Cleve Mortelliti, is “the perfect thing to ask the question, ‘What is art?’”
A Shift in the Landscape plays at The Ryerson Image Centre until December 4, 2016. Check out the gallery’s website for current exhibitions and hours here.