Outlier: Richard Serra’s Shift

Shift Sculpture

Photo by Jason Paris from Toronto, Canada (Richard Serra’s “Shift” (1970) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

I travel bi-weekly from my home in southeastern Ontario on the northern shore of Lake Ontario up to the city of Barrie, about an hour north of Toronto, to visit my ailing mother. So as to avoid driving into and then out of the urban sprawl and congestion of Toronto, I take a series of secondary and county roads that eventually get me to where I’m going. If my little village, Toronto, and Barrie comprise the three apex points of a triangle, I essentially drive the hypotenuse.

shift sculpture

Photo by Jason Paris from Toronto, Canada (Richard Serra’s “Shift” (1970) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

And that hypotenuse takes me through King City, just on the northern outskirts of Toronto. Well, maybe it was once; now, as with so many other distinct communities, the 50 kilometers separating it from its hefty southern neighbor are being rather rapidly swallowed up by the latter’s unchecked growth. Big cities tend to do that. But as I’ve driven through all of this on my bi-weekly commute, I’ve also routinely driven past a truly major piece of site-specific sculpture that, by law, I’ve not been allowed to have a look at because it is situated on private property. It’s there, sitting just a few hundred feet away from the road I travel along, set in the midst of what has long been agricultural land (most recently, cornfields). Despite being situated just outside of a major Canadian city and now encircled by the questionable effects of urban sprawl, it anomalously (and frustratingly) presents itself as inaccessible. It’s called Shift, and it was put there by one of the giants of contemporary sculpture, Richard Serra.

Its inaccessibility is hugely ironic in light of the fact that Shift was a product of the “earthworks” or “land art” movement that came of age in the late 1960s, and which gave us monumental pieces like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) jutting out into the brackish waters of Great Salt Lake in Utah, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1970) cut into the edge of a mesa in Nevada, Nancy Holt’s concrete Sun Tunnels (1976) in Utah, the acres of steel-tipped rods comprising Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) in New Mexico, and even James Turrell’s still-in-progress Roden Crater in Arizona. All of these works are remote and pretty inaccessible (beyond geographic inaccessibility, Lightning Field is available to see only by reservation, and Roden Crater has not yet opened to the general public). But in some ways they are much easier to experience than the Serra that sits out in the proverbial backyard.

Shift Sculpture

Photo by Jason Paris from Toronto, Canada (Richard Serra’s “Shift” (1970)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Serra was close to Smithson and Holt (he took part in the making of Spiral Jetty), and following the former’s death while surveying the site for Amarillo Ramp in north Texas, assisted Holt in completing the piece in 1973. But while these works were all located in remote areas of the southwestern United States, Serra’s interests turned toward a rural property in Canada owned by the art collector Peter Davidson. In exchange for two sculptural works, Davidson gave Serra the go-ahead to use his property to create what became Shift. With artist Joan Jonas, Serra walked and surveyed the property, establishing distances and directions in which one person could keep the other in view across the gently rolling landscape. Working in concrete (one of only two works he’s created in the medium), he shaped six separate low walls across the topography of the property that vary in length between 27 and 73 meters. Though decayed somewhat because that’s what happens with concrete over the course of time, the work has generally withstood the ravages of time and weather fairly well and without any form of ongoing maintenance and upkeep.

Now, here’s the thing: Shift was, as I said, built on private property, and that property was eventually sold to a developer intent on, well, developing the property. Homes have thus been built adjacent to the work, a new street even named after the artist. Long story short: aforesaid property developer promised not to demolish the work, but resisted attempts to formally designate it as culturally important. Even the august Art Gallery of Ontario became involved in possible efforts to bring it into the gallery collection. Eventually the municipality of King City thought that what was basically a pinky-swear by the developer wasn’t sufficient, did the right thing, and went ahead on its own to designate Shift as culturally significant. The community stepped forward.

Shift Sculpture

Photo by Jason Paris from Toronto, Canada (Richard Serra’s “Shift” (1970)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alas, that didn’t make the work any easier to visit and see. Part of the context surrounding earthworks has to do with saying “yes” to them through the very act of physical encounter. Seeing Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, Sun Tunnels or other works of the genre is akin to undertaking a pilgrimage, involving a lot of planning, traveling great distances, and entering harsh environments that are difficult and stressful (and even somewhat dangerous).

Shift has none of that going for it. Gas stations, restaurants, and convenience stores are really close at hand. It’s a short jaunt out of Canada’s largest city. No need exists to stock up on bottled water or make sure someone knows where you are lest you get swallowed up by the desert – all you really need is a decent pair of shoes. Shift has no geographic remoteness to it. It’s available.

But it’s not. Oh, it has its visitors who have, over the years, ignored the No Trespassing signs and found their way to the Serra in the cornfields (see, for example, Sarah Zabrodski’s “In Search of Richard Serra’s Embattled ‘Shift’” , or Tyler Green’s “The Significance of Richard Serra’s ‘Shift’,”.   Legally forbidden, pilgrimages have been made. “Yes” has most definitely been said.

Despite some missed opportunities and two failed attempts, I intend to say my own.

By Gil McElroy

4 responses

    • thank you, Jonathan. I don’t know enough about Serra’s intentions to know whether or not he intended it to be public; there was a transaction between the landowner and artist in which the Serra gave him art in return for use of the property. But King City clearly thinks it’s public, and worked hard toward giving it cultural status. And I think that it should be public as well. It’s important at many different levels

  1. this is such an amazing article! Can we think of trespassing in order to view a culturally significant work – especially one surrounded so completely by commercialist, consumerist spaces – as an act of necessary resistance? How could pre-acquired cultural knowledge of site-specific earth art be viewed as a counter to potential acts of vandalism, for example? Fascinating stuff.

    • Thanks for saying so! In a related way, it’s been interesting following much of what’s gone on around Spiral Jetty in Utah. Smithson selected the site because of its context which included the presence of old oil operations. But back in 2008, the Dia Foundation became quite unhappy that nearby contemporary oil operations marred the view of the piece. If Shift ever achieves some independent cultural status as, say, an acquisition by a gallery or foundation, would there then arises issues about the presence of a nearby subdivision, the ongoing encroachment of suburbia?

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