Just yesterday, after two weeks, I took my muddy boots out of the plastic bags I had stored them in, and climbed out the window and stood on the roof, and cleaned the mud off them with a lot of rags. I used twigs and water too. They had been so caked in mud, I think they will remain a little bit muddy forever.
Then, later that day, I was cooking while listening to an interview with Richard Serra that was playing on a DVD in the next room. The interviewer, Charlie Rose, introduced him as “widely considered to be one of the best American sculptors of the twentieth century.” I kept returning to the room with the TV in it, to go back to the beginning of what Serra had been saying about sculpture coming off the pedestal: “It was probably the biggest thing to happen in the twentieth century. Because once it got off the pedestal, you no longer looked at an object that was depicting a realistic aspect of either a hero, or something to idolize, or something to worship, or something to be seen as apart from the space you are in. Once it came off the pedestal, it was in exactly the same behavioural space that you were in, so you had to deal with it in relation to time and space, and not as something removed from you to deal with as a kind of icon of worship.”
Last week, four friends and I went to see Henry’s band play. I barely knew Henry, but he was friends with my friends. “You’re all a bunch of sheep!” Henry cried into his microphone at one point. They were performing in a narrow bar and there was no stage; the audience was pressed all around them.
Behind me, the mother of a twelve-year-old boy who had been allowed to stay home from school for his birthday lay curled up on a couch, trying, it seemed, to sleep. She tucked and retucked the hair under her head and closed her eyes and folded her hands together in a pillow. Her son stood close to the band, looking around quickly, wide-eyed, jumping arrythmically, a little petrified, never smiling.
The refrain to the final song of the night was Fuck you, Henry. The crowd and the band were to scream it together. Lee and Kathryn had already gone home because Lee was too paranoid from getting high. “Go make out with someone you haven’t made out with before!” Henry cried, but no one did. Rick was acting strange. Where was Jorg? A tiny woman standing near the piano had picked up a mike and was saying loudly into it—not with the chorus, but deadpan: Fuck you, Henry. Fuck you, Henry.
Rick turned to me, grinning, and said, “That’s his ex-girlfriend. They’re always in each other’s faces.”
The song ended. Henry, in the crowd and covered in sweat, walked feebly back to the mike stand. I didn’t like him. His shiny red blouse was sticking to his body and his long hair was thready and wet with sweat. Rick wanted to say hi, so I went and found my bag and sweater and my coat, which had fallen under a table. When we got outside, the audience was milling about. Henry was standing around with a cigarette.
“When are you going to be in Vancouver?” I asked, feeling uncomfortable. “I want to send a friend to your show,” I said, though I didn’t want to.
“November 17 and 18. Saturday and Sunday,” he said. Then, with some interest, “Are you going to be there?”
“No.” I was going to be here, in Toronto.
He paused for a moment. “Good.”
Rick laughed. I walked away. I was irritated at Henry, at Lee for getting stoned and being paranoid and leaving without saying goodbye, at Rick, at everyone. A few days earlier, we had all been walking together in a field of mud, after driving to King City to trespass through a field to see a Richard Serra sculpture that had been built there years ago. It had been a cold, cloudy day. My boots got all muddy. We had been fucking happy then.
It was several weeks ago when Rick mentioned that the architects he was working for had been asked to consult on the future of a Richard Serra piece situated in a field in King City, an hour outside Toronto. None of us knew the piece existed. It had been built in the early seventies and was one of his first site-specific works. The Canadian collector Roger Davidson had commissioned Serra to make something in the potato field his family owned. A couple years after it was built, the property was sold to developers, but no mention of a sculpture appeared on any of the deeds. Since that time, the sculpture had received no upkeep, no care. The land around it is cultivated to this day—heavy machinery drives within inches of the piece—and the work itself was reported to be disintegrating.
“Let’s go see it,” Rick said, so for the first time together, we all left the city.
On a Saturday morning—early for all of us—we drove the rental car north and parked at the edge of a country road. Lee, Rick, Kathryn, Jorg and I got out. The single map we had was rudimentary: an aerial view of two roads intersecting, and in the top left quadrant, patches of cropland and the topographic outline of six walls zigzagging across a field, identified with a line and the words Richard Serra’s Shift.
We hopped the gate; we were trespassing, so we kept to the edges of the field and hid ourselves as we wandered through the corn. Someone pushed someone into the brambles. I ripped my coat walking through the nettles. We were giddy and laughing—just being in the fresh air was making us dizzy. Kathryn walked into a low-hanging branch and we all laughed.
After an hour of wandering and supposing we would never find it, we saw a lookout attached to a tree; Jorg climbed it and pointed. “I see it,” he said.
He climbed down and we crossed out of a small forest and went up a slight incline. Before us lay an open field of dried grass and heavy mud, and moving down through the field, into the distance, was what we had come to find: six concrete walls covered in lichen and cracking in places. They were eight inches thick and five feet high at most. They snaked down through the field at angles to each other, buried in the sloping ground and elevating with the land.
I said to Lee, “We’d never be out here, together in a field, if it wasn’t for that sculpture.” And he said, “It’s really the best thing about it—it’s not just something to look at, but it’s like a silent character in your life.” Since the sculpture got so few visitors, it seemed like the walls existed for the field too, and that the field existed for the walls, and the walls and the field existed for our bodies, and our bodies existed for these things in space.
It was a freeing feeling, as if being a human was an easy thing. Just a body situated somewhere.
I saw how the field was cut flat, but branches and grasses grew tall against the sculpture, like they were clinging to it, like the grasses loved it, like they had moved across the field just to be near it. A feeling of satisfaction came over me. Nature clings to art—art is what our natures cling to. I thought about how we return to the same paintings, how we attach ourselves to the best stories, and explain ourselves through them. Or maybe it’s the kind of thought you get in a potato field.
When I returned to my friends, I smiled to see that Lee had set up his camera and an elaborate flash with a silver umbrella and was taking pictures. The wind knocked the umbrella to the ground, and it got damaged and covered in mud. He said, “This umbrella’s ruined. But it came free with the equipment.”
Kathryn said: “When we came upon the field, I thought, Everything’s going to be okay. I never think like that.” We sat on the sculpture. We played on it. Rick pissed on the sculpture, though I didn’t see. “I really had to do that,” he grinned. Jorg said he peed on it too. But not cold-bloodedly—like you would pee on an old friend.
Several weeks after I had found Lee crying inside one of Serra’s torqued spirals in Bilbao, where we had experienced his work for the first time, Lee emailed me a paragraph from the Guardian, written by the art critic Robert Hughes about the Serra room of the Guggenheim: “Once you are absorbed in their space and pacing out their convolutions, you suddenly feel free—far from the dead zone of mass-media quotation, released from all that vulgar, tedious postmodernist litter and twitter... It’s quite a good feeling... The work is as new as new could be, but when you are experiencing it you may also think of an 18th-century definition of the spirit of classical sculpture: ‘A noble inwardness,’ wrote Johann Winckelmann, ‘a calm grandeur.’”
That was how we felt, trespassing, full-size.