Serra, Lin, and Abramovic: public and private spaces in Postmodernism

As a movement in contemporary art, postmodernism existed as a means to critique modernity. It altered discourse on public normalities and incited social and political change. In the centuries prior, art was seen as being outside the realm of political demand, existing solely as an interior for the bourgeoisie, both timeless and universal. However, with the beginnings of the movement originating in the early 20th century as Dadaism, and shifting to fit the modern age as hyper-conceptual works often involving multimedia and performance art, postmodernism stepped into the now, offering political and social commentary– a rebellion against preconceived notions of what art is and its place in society.

One thing postmodern artists have undoubtedly done in covering an array of subjects, such as gender, the body, race, class, environment, is contribute to the conversation concerning public and private spaces and the human’s relation to them. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc— once located in Federal Plaza, New York City– is probably one of the most challenged and controversial pieces of public art ever to be erected. It was dismantled and put into storage after a lengthy litigation process following Serra’s appeal of the court’s original decision to remove the metal sculpture. Under such contest and disapproval by government officials and judicial players, it is appropriate to fall into a conversation about artistic freedom and the role of public art. However, Tilted Arc’s original interpretation should be considered, in relation to and despite the politics surrounding its existence.

In an interview for The Guardian in 2008, Richard Serra told Sean O’Hagan that his work is “all about centralizing the space in different ways. How people move in relation to space, that’s essentially what I’m up to.’” This ‘relation to space’ Serra mentions is critical; how does a space function? What feeling must or should be evoked from being in the space? And who does the space belong to? The artist, the viewer, or the government who owns and controls the space?

The sculpture disrupted the plaza in which it was located. The barrier was a thick, cold piece of steel slicing through public area. It broke the space in two, a kind of wall between the city street and the privately owned buildings. It was also curved, embracing the buildings with a profoundness that can be taken to be either seclusionary or emotive. Is it a blockade from the government or an energy wave of rebellion sitting outside federal institutions? It was inherently subversive, sitting bleakingly in Federal Plaza– a message from Serra to our country’s exploitive institutions. By placing the steel arc at the plaza’s center, the public must alter their expectations of what the space is. The arc simultaneously negates the idea that art is for the people and that a public space, such as Federal Plaza, is exclusively to be utilized for public use. What does it mean for a space to be “public” and “private”? As one must move from one side of the arc to the other, a viewer’s perspective is artificially altered, never a full, uninterrupted glimpse of the area. Here, space is challenged, Serra’s court battle a further testament to this fact.

Serra’s tenacity and taste for rebellion is not always mirrored in artists who work in large public spaces, however. Maya Lin is an example of an artist with a much softer side, one willing to serve the public and government’s needs equally with traditional architectural installations. Without controversy, Lin raises worthwhile questions about the human experience in public spaces, specifically in her work for the Grand Rapids ice skating rink. Drawing inspiration from the realm of science, in her design Lin depicts the three states of water– the skate rink’s ice, an interactive ring of vaporous mist to side of the rink, and a rippling water pond.

The Grand Rapids ice skating rink is elemental in its concept, similar to her earlier work, such as the the Vietnam War Memorial where a wall of names emerges from, and is in fact surrounded by, earth. Here at Grand Rapids, she breaks down, elevates, and parallels the commodity and natural occurrence of water with the human interaction taking place in the public space. Equally as substantive, human movement, thought, and interaction changes when approaching the different parts of the installation; the solid ice rink calls the public to feel and act with more energy than the reverence that might usually be employed when approaching a pond. Human needs and actions are altered by and with the change in space.

For Maya Lin, space is communal, it is flowing and naturally beautiful. It is functional in its purpose. But more importantly, it is for the public’s pleasure. Nature, and therefore the human, is integrated into the architecture, as opposed to Serra’s Tilted Arc, which seems to reject such democratic concepts.  

Along with Serra’s minimalistic sculptures or Maya Lin’s elemental architecture, performance art is woven into the fabric of the postmodernist movement, in part due to the contribution of Marina Abramovic. In her controversial piece called Imponderabilia, Abramovic and her partner Ulay created a performance art piece surrounding the concept of having their naked bodies flank a single doorway and forcing visitors to squeeze through the narrow space.

Where the body is usually considered a private space, especially in the presence of a significant other, Abramovic and Ulay make their bodies a public spectacle and a tangible object the public is required to touch; participants might possibly come into contact with Abramovic’s breast, or Ulay’s penis. The meshing of public and private space is what makes imponderabilia a compelling performance to consider when pondering human to human relationships.

Whether Abramovic is as effective as Lin or Serra is a point of debate, for while in Abramovic’s performance piece she disrupts the public normality of clothed, non-tactile interaction, Lin takes the public into account when designing her work. Serra, on the other hand, negates all preconceptions of what commissioned art should be and what public art should do. Serra objects to the idea of a public space and was most successful in generating a global debate on the issue of public spaces and art. Though he tried to create a barrier between government and the people, he was ultimately overpowered in court. The powers that be won. Backlash from the public was too strong. That is why Serra’s work, while the most controversial, is also the most profound. Tilted Arc illustrates that in actuality, even public spaces are governed spaces.

Together, these three artists seek to break down the spaces we inhabit, be it through the body, the elements, or the constructed. And all three artists are important players in the same conversation. They stimulate public thought and challenge notions of private and public. A space is therefore not one thing, for one purpose or one end, but multidimensional and transient. The public can be the private, and vice versa. These boundaries and border walls we draw for ourselves are personally defined, or they are defined for us. It is with comfort and with strife that we move about in these spaces, wishing to be alone, to be seen, to be a part of or be apart from the environment that surrounds us. We are players forced to participate in the great debate over land and air, who is most deserving and who is not, who shall welcomingly pass through and who, like Serra, shall be rejected from the public domain.

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