Ecological Rehearsals: Shift, Toronto, Ontario

Richard Serra’s Shift, located in King City north of Toronto, is a prototype for contemporary ecological art.

The walls of Richard Serra’s Shift trace a zigzag through a farmer’s field in King City, Ontario. Photo by Simon Rabyniuk and Pooya Aledvood

In the face of the climate crisis, contemporary ecological artists are investigating radical contingencies between site, mediating systems and viewers. French artist Pierre Huyghe’s work, for instance, creates haunting architectural spaces, inhabited by humans as well as other living beings and processes. Korean-American Anicka Yi, on the other hand, creates uncanny sculptures by deploying unorthodox materials such as ice crystals and bacterial agents in open-ended, evolving environments.

But this kind of approach might also be found closer to home. We propose recuperating Richard Serra’s Shift, first performed in 1972, as a prototype for contemporary ecological art. Prototypes demonstrate the potential of a concept, while perhaps leaving certain claims unfulfilled. Works such as Shift, along with other pieces of ecological art, reflect a larger need to think about how spatial practices, like sculpture or architecture, perform—rather than their mere imageability.

Constructed in a farmer’s field in King City, north of Toronto, Shift entails a series of concrete walls, alongside which today, native and invasive species root leeward. These stems, leaves, roots and flowers fill in a zigzag territory, bounded by the cultivated fields around the walls. The former, a community of species, stands in contrast to the single-mindedness of this year’s alfalfa crop. In the fields, the typically straight paths created by agricultural tools instead bend. These two zones—one entropic and the other industrial—both register the spatial effects of Serra’s site-specific sculpture.

We walk this land fifty-some years after Serra. Some artists document their performances through notes, photography, film or video. In this instance, each wall testifies to the original vectors of Serra and collaborating artist Joan Jonas’ footsteps. Each wall cuts through, rather than braces against, the site’s topography. They rise or fall (depending on your point of view) with the slope of the land. Akin to misaligned retaining walls, they are objectively poor objects: eroding concrete, cast without reinforcement. Despite this, they sculpt relations beyond our lines of sight. When viewed from above, they trace relationships between land and artifact, seasonal growth and decay. A friction comes into view between the sculpted environment and the larger development processes beyond the surrounding woodlots.

Through the 60s and 70s, minimalist artists, including Serra, claimed that the space around a work of art was the subject of sculpture. Modernist art critic Michael Fried accused their work of “theatricality” for taking this position. In fact, Serra consistently performs his sculptures. In the handwritten drawing (and later film of the same name) Verb List (1967-68), Serra first writes down, and then speaks the actions that his studio hands enact in the creation of work. In Gutter Corner Splash  (1969), he hurls ladles of molten lead into the corner created at the intersection between the gallery floor and wall. Gesture, material and place intersect and coalesce as a residue. Reflecting on related sculptural practices, art critic Johanna Burton describes how these residues energize the spaces they inhabit.

Ecological art, such as Huyghe’s and Yi’s, registers the force of living and non-living processes on each other. Shift is prototypical for this kind of pursuit in sculpture. Given its firm foundation, set in an Ontario field, we have the pleasure of witnessing its force and the shifting relations it catalyzes, year after year.

Simon Rabyniuk is a sessional lecturer at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Pooya Aledvood is an architectural designer at Moriyama & Teshima Architects.