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.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.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