A major Stanford landmark has recently left campus. Just imagine how we would feel if Hoover Tower disappeared overnight.
Richard Serra’s monumental but minimalist Sequence (standing at 67 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 13 feet high) has loomed outside Cantor since 2011. While the appeal of minimalism is largely cerebral—invoking the heavy French theory of Merleau-Ponty and ontological mouthfuls such as “phenomenology”—and less than visually stimulating, Sequence has enjoyed immense popularity over the last few years, boasting a high Instagramability in its interplay with the blue California sky. It has piqued the curiosities of even the most vehement of modern art detractors and provided precious minutes of conversations for many a group of awkward ProFros—shielding them from the onslaught of awkward silence.
Sequence encourages its viewers to involve themselves directly with the sculpture. Its interlocking figure-eights are composed of two curvilinear rolls of sheet metal, demarcating a winding pathway for any and all to walk through. It is this very audience participation that not only ensures the work’s celebrity but also manages to convey minimalist principles—clouded by its alienating intellectual rigor—by putting them into practice. In Sequence, we learn by doing, simultaneously a dance and art history class.
Sequence’s shape from above—an infinity sign—speaks to some of minimalism’s founding principles. Donald Judd, a prominent minimalist theorist, asserts that painting is a finite practice. Even avant-garde painting like Abstract Expressionism is comprised of what can occur plausibly within and on the rectangular plane. It is the mere suggestion of infinitude, rather than infinite in its very medium. Minimalist art’s form is the medium of human interaction. Rather than elements within the work relating to one another, the work as a whole relates to entities that are not itself. Expansive rather than intensive, minimalist art like Serra’s operates in the actual world, rather than imitating it or being separate from it.
The sheet metal forces our movement, flanking our bodies, dangerously close. The curvature of the pathways affects our bodies inside and out, inducing in the viewer a sense of unease. The sheet metal, when leaning sharply overhead the actor, threatens the viewer. Against our will, we are guided to move towards these threats. This threat is inevitable, as the “entrance” of Sequence faces the museum. It invites us to enter, beckoning us with its swirled appendages, before entrapping us. Once in Sequence, our connection to the outside world is severed. We exit, and are completely disoriented. Lost, we crave the comforts of directionality that Sequence provides in a sort of stock.
Sequence’s oscillating sense of danger and imprisonment of the actor seem almost violent in nature. It is a sadistic manipulation of the human body. The piece revels in the actor’s fear and disoriented movement. The oppression of its closing walls and winding paths sap our agency, and we are but mere puppets of our cruel, metallic overlord.
However, Sequence’s expansiveness is its saving grace. The work is open to the influences of external phenomena, and one’s experience of it is never entirely stable. Endless combinations of experiences can be created, instead of the single, prison-like that it attempts to prescribe. The actor’s sensory experience of Sequence is not stable. Sequence is an outdoor work, privy to changes in light by weather and time of day. Walking through Sequence in the rain, we feel the droplets fall upon our heads, each epiphanies, which remind us that we are not trapped. We only have to turn our gazes skyward.
It is the very experience of being manipulated that brings about our agency. Disoriented and disillusioned, we find solace in returning to the world of Cantor, and reflect upon our imprisonment. The “exit” behind us, from which we emerge, may as well be the “entrance,” and the rigidness of this Sequence becomes disrupted. Instead of following its prescribed path, we walk at will. We walk forwards and back, entering and exiting, looking around, dispelling the confusion that lies within the walls. We alternately relinquish and reclaim control.
With a newfound freedom, we also explore the site more thoroughly, invigorated to examine and traverse every inch of the courtyard. Sequence induces in us a joy in the act of seeing and doing, a far cry from the metal walls that so manipulated us—forcing an experience on us rather than letting it be self-determined. With these expansive qualities, this architecture is sapped of its authority.
Architecture, on Stanford campus and otherwise, contains emotional power. Certain buildings call to mind awkward encounters, others of moments of connection. We only have to set foot inside to be pushed into a particular mental state. Sequence gives us the expansive tools to overcome this entrapment, and to determine our own experiences. The minimalists, too, were trailblazers, carving a path for the subversive, postmodern practices of the contemporary art world to dismantle metanarratives: purportedly “comprehensive” histories that only served to legitimize its creators. It’s unfortunate that now, with these metanarratives, so too has Sequence itself been dismantled. (For now, anyway.)
Because, alas, for all its expansiveness, Sequence is not site-specific, but merely site-based. The Bay Arean cultural wormhole of SF MOMA, even in dormancy, claims another. The Fisher Collection, including Sequence, will be part of the newly renovated SF MOMA, which opens in 2016, and a figure-eight-shaped void is all that is left of our hearts. Que Serra, Serra. Whatever will be, will be. May Sequence continue to encourage the disruption of its namesake and the expansion into the infinite.
Photo courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center.