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Richard Serra and the Brain: A Form Not Seen Before

Notes: This is a prepared response to the question: Can An Art Object Investigate the Brain?

No one would accept the job. Then I went to Korea. The Koreans could build it, but they don’t make sixteen-foot-wide plates, they only make twelve-foot-wide plates, but they don’t have a bender with a sufficient capacity. At that point, I didn’t think I would be able to make the work at all…. We finally found a place, Beth Ship, a shipyard and rolling mill in Maryland, who was interested in the problem….It‘s a large machine, between forty and fifty feet long, and it generates a tremendous amount of compression. Only four of these machines, called High-Smiths, were built during the Second World War in Scotland. They were used to bend steel for battleships. I think there are only two left in existence. (12-13)
—Richard Serra discussing the making of Torqued Ellipses (1996)


Already the 21st century is an era cloaked with the veneer of physicality’s passing. The weighty icons of 19th- and 20th-century industrialization – such as the massive machines used to bend steel for war, the sprawling red brick factories stretching across the New England landscape, the angry steel plants of Pittsburgh, or most ubiquitous, the great sinuous swatches of tar and steel cut into the earth to service cars and trains — are with us but have become increasingly mute and invisible. Readily available, resolutely used, they are less likely to be seen than to be expected. Materials such as brick, concrete and tar, steel, wood and flesh are nature to us now. Their presence musters no magic (as Houdini did for the era of physical culture) because the world of skin — of concrete materiality — has passed from primary knowledge and awe to brute routine. Alchemy is no longer celebrated as the passing of solid into air but as the generative interactions — experienced but unseen — that pass between electricity and code. In this incarnation flesh is not transformed into gold but immateriality; steel into space.

Listen to Richard Serra as he discusses his monumental Torqued Ellipses,(1996):

Space here has become a material for me. I’m trying to deal with the substance of space…. These pieces aren’t primarily predicated on your eye. As much as the movement of your body. They’re the least optical pieces I’ve ever made. They have very little to do with seeing something as a thing, as an object. (26)

Richard Serra works with weighty, massive slabs of steel, yet their impressive physicality is not the goal. In fact, they have little to do with seeing something as a thing, as an object. Torqued Ellipses produce an experience of emergent space, of the hollow corridors in between old modes. It is not the steel (although clearly the steel is the medium) but the fact that space here has become a material.

Think for a moment.

Monumental steel ellipses — impossibly torqued by the power of vanishing industrial machinery. In their presence one does stand and gaze, for looking reveals little. Yet the relentlessness of the slab remains. It is a thick, cold, unpolished form that gives up no secrets until one enters — disappears — into the gap in between. As the body moves inside the massive torqued steel corridors, the tangible is made utterly strange and discordant. Wind your way around the steel slabs and suddenly air, mass and volume are no longer tangible nor familiar. One feels as if one is traveling between epochs.

I wasn’t interested in the aesthetics of these pieces, but in the fact that a generic form, an ellipse, could be torqued on itself to produce a form not seen before….I was starting with the void, that is, starting with the space, starting from the inside out, not the outside in, in order to find the skin. (13)
– Richard Serra

Torqued Ellipses is a transitional object. A monument to the passing of palpable physicality (cut from the strained armature of the industrial age) to the oncoming poetics and epistemologies of an age where revelation lies in the non-physical (impetus of the electronic age). Non-physicality does not mean no physicality – clearly the physical will always be with us — but refers to the knowledge and communication wrought from the poetics of electrical signals and chemical interactions.

* * *

And men should know that from nothing else but from the brain comes joys, laughter and jests, and sorrows and grief, despondency and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know what are foul and what are fair, what sweet and what unsavory…and by the same organ we become mad and delirious and fears and terrors assail us, some by day, and dreams and untimely wanderings, and cares that are not suitable and ignorance of present circumstances, disquietude and unskillfullness. All these things we endure from the brain, when it is not healthy, but is more cold, more moist, or more dry than natural, or when it suffers other prenatural and unusual afflictions.
— Hippocrates, fifth century B.C.


Switch for a moment to that ubiquitous icon, the brain, described by one neurologist as what “starts as a slab of cells.” Recognized by its ovoid shape and condensed array of squiggly membranes, the brain, as physical object, is a mute, dumb, quiet, silent mystery. A bit of a monster, like Frankenstein’s creation, pieced together from flesh and electricity, the brain, like the monster, has no immediate connection to the humans it is so mortally attached to. It sits like another riddle, the Sphinx at Giza, as pure monument. But how to get such slabs — ancient stone, monstrous sentient 19th-century flesh, endless networking cells — to give up their secrets? Their corporeal surface offers little insight into what they are and how they know. Frankenstein remains a howling monster, unheard except by the reader who is not a part of this world. As does the brain as it exists as an inscrutable mass; a brute physical thing. The brain remains a slab, remote and unyielding; all human senses (that it is responsible for) are impotent when it comes to knowing it. Touch, taste, sight, smell, sound vanish as tools of insight or understanding. From a laypersons’ purely sensorial point of view there is no chance of intimate contact between witness and slab unless said onlooker is an archeologist, a physiologist, a neurologist. In fact neurology may be to the 21st century what archeology and physiology (phrenology) were to the 19th, the site where mystery’s draw slips from the material to the immaterial. The neuron not the slab; or better, the space inside and between, not the objective stone flesh or steel itself, are the magisterial arbiters of revelation.

* * *

a neuron is a cell in the nervous system specialized

for the transmission of information

—Jonathan Winson

And here we pass into the synaptic gap. Into understanding the brain as a network of electronic and chemical transmogrifications consisting of a complexity and order that is currently beyond our reach. Truth be told we have not yet discovered how to speak or touch or talk with the systems and networks that make up our brain. And we may never because the brain requires an entirely different array of communications technologies generated out of the twitch of chemical transfers—neurotransmitters— as they release into synaptic clefts. Clefts inside these torqued forms not yet seen which, starting from the inside out, not the outside in, will lead us ultimately to find the skin, that is our elliptical self. Richard Serra and the brain. What an impossible transgenic organism.