Thursday, May 20, 2010


Some works are just not made for public art museums and Richard Serra’s Trip Hammer is one of them. Two very heavy sheets of rolled steel are balanced one on top of the other in the corner of a room only supported by two points on the each wall. If this sculpture were to collapse, anyone nearby would be at serious risk of being crushed (and this did indeed happen to one of Serra’s installation assistants). So the question is how you place such a risky work into a public art environment without compromising it. The answer is, in the case of Tate Modern anyway, you don’t. Instead the massive weight of Trip Hammer is visually trivialized by a barrier created out of rope and metal sticks. It’s not enough to protect either people or the work, but intrusive enough to subvert the promise of the form and materials. Adding another stick with a notice about an upcoming talk and some signage on the floor, and Tate Modern has pretty much put Mr. Serra to bed. 

It’s a shared problem. Most public art museums cannot show this kind of work properly and fall back on inappropriate stands, barriers and ugly strips of tape on the floor to protect the work and/or the public. Does this recontextualization concern the artists? You would think that Serra – a famously rigorous practitioner – could do something about it if he wished, but maybe he doesn’t, or has given up. So it’s left up to your imagination to see what his large balanced works would feel like when there is nothing between you and the mass and the message.