Shift by Richard Serra
“Google Maps lies”, or least that’s what I’m telling myself as we trundle our way into an empty field looking for one of the lost great art treasures of the 20th century. According to satellite photos and where we parked the car: it should be right where we’re standing. Instead, all we can see is a man way off in the distance using a wood chipper. Having seen Fargo, along with the fact we just hopped a fence ignoring a no trespassing sign; my wife and I approach with caution. “Excuse me, would you happen to know where we could find Shift?” my wife asks the man whose farm we are currently trespassing on. He gives us the once over and then slowly turns his head and surveys the land. Satisfied we’re harmless he points over his shoulder and says we can find the sculpture beyond a ridge of trees behind him. The farmer turns out to be really sweet and helpful and tells us that he ends up helping wayward art lovers roughly 3 or 4 times a year. We ask him what he thinks of Shift and he shrugs then replies” If it prevents developers from moving in, I love it.”
We follow his thumb and in no time are standing on a slope looking across a series of what resemble low running concrete fences dissecting the land. We had found Richard Serra‘s Shift. Originally commissioned by art collector Roger Davidson in the early 1970’s, it was one of Serra’s earliest land works. Shift consists of six running cement pieces that are five feet tall, eight inches thick and vary from ninety to two hundred and forty feet in length. The piece is placed between two small hills that are approximately fifteen hundred feet apart with a slope that drops by fifteen feet in the centre. Shift ebbs and flows as it rides the land.
Serra said of the piece: “What I wanted was a dialectic between one’s perception of the place in totality and one’s relation to the field as walked. The result is a way of measuring oneself against the indeterminacy of the land. I’m not interested in looking at sculpture which is solely defined by its internal relationships. When you bounce a ball on a shifting ground, it doesn’t return to your hand.” Writings and Interviews with Richard Serra
Richard Serra has converted an isolated farmer’s field 45 minutes north of Toronto into a cathedral of contemporary art. Shift is very unassuming at first glance and almost gets lost into the scenery of an overcast December day. It is an artwork that pictures do absolutely no justice to. It isn’t until you engage with it that it reveals its true beauty. As you follow the lines of the concrete you rise and fall with the land constantly changing your perspective of the piece and its surroundings. Shift definitely shares some of the hallmarks of Serra’s later works: no one can take you on a walk like Richard Serra can.
Over the years Shift has gone through some rough patches. It started back in 1980 when the land was sold by the original collector to land developers with the agreement that the work be considered a landmark and not be removed. Shift has been left to the elements and its age is starting to show. Recently the piece’s heritage rating has been revoked due to its remoteness. The major factor why it cannot maintain its landmark status for the residents of King City is: apparently not enough people brave the weather, know that it’s there and are willing to trespass to go see it. Shift’s future is uncertain.
After spending an hour with Shift, my wife and I left recharged and thankful that we made the pilgrimage to Mr. Serra’s secret cathedral of changing perspectives before it could be too late. If in the future new developers come along and bulldoze the land to make way for another townhouse we’ll have lost a cultural milestone …… that and the love of a good farmer.