2008 | 1 | 1(4) | 120-133
Article title

THE WEIGHT OF EXPERIENCE AND THE EMPTINESS OF URBAN SPACE. RICHARD SERRA'S 'TILTED ARC' (Ciezar doswiadczenia i próznia przestrzeni miejskiej. Wokól 'Tilted Arc' Richarda Serry)

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The article revises a particular example of public art. Richard Serra's 'Tilted Arc', which provoked one of the most famous art controversies in the 80s. In America. Commisioned in 1979 by the General Services Administration (GSA), on recommendation of the National Endowment for the Arts, 'Tilted Arc' was installed on Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, a vast space flanked by government office buildings. However, after severe protests, mainly from the public officials, who complained about the sculpture's ugliness, GSA finally decided to replace it. The situation was unique, for the most other cases, after a period of public incomprehension and opposition, controversial public works usually gained acceptation. This time the striving to 'protect public controversy' overshadowed the work even in time of its existence, which seems to be a paradox, for Serra insisted that his main interest was the physical and corporeal experience of place. While bringing forth the material reality and 'the weight of experience', his steel sculptures were intended to be a form of resistance to the contemporary image-oriented world. To critically assess 'Tilted Arc' means to elaborate on its relation with the site. Serra's sculpture was to be site-specific, i.e. inseparable from the place in which it resided. It should not be considered as a discrete aesthetic object, he claimed, but as a 'sculptural field'. In their architectural scale and spatial arrangement, Serra's sculptures call sttention to the mutual transitivity of seen and seen, in a way which reminds M. Merleau-Ponty's remarks from his 'Phenomenology of Perception'. What it means, however, is that the specificity of the site is not the subject of the work - articulating its historical or social conditions is not Serra's aim. His sculpture would rather introduce the viewers in its own context, keeping to a language of its own. At the same time, however, in the case of 'Tilted Arc', Serra was fully conscious of the challenging quality of his work. He refused to 'cooperate' with the bureaucratic milieu of Federal Plaza. With its dull, overscaled architecture from the 60s. Instead of offering some aesthetic enhancement, formal focus and adornment, 'Tilted Arc' seemed to expose the emptiness and the abstract character of the site. In this way, it formed an 'obstacle to imagining the nonexistent public space'. The radical anti-aesthetic strategy presented in 'Tilted Arc' still remains a point of critical controversy: for most critics it is a typical example of modernist aloofness that proved to be ineffective in public realm, for others it was a weighty manifestation of criticality, which needs an autonomous (formal) logic if it is not to dissolve in the field of social discourses.
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  • Agnieszka Rejniak-Majewska, Uniwersytet Lódzki, Instytut Filozofii, ul. S. Kopcinskiego 16/18, 90-232 Lódz, Poland
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