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Richard Serra's Shift under threat once again

Posted by Derek Flack / August 14, 2012

Richard Serra ShiftNever write about happy endings when it comes to public art because context — that all important but ever-changing element — determines everything. This is a lesson worthy of a first year undergraduate, but it bears repeating on account of my own naiveté and, more importantly, because Richard Serra's Shift — one of the GTA's best claims to the internationally acclaimed artist's legacy — is once again in danger. While his second best known Toronto-area installation (behind Tilted Spheres, of course) isn't about to meet the wrecking ball, things aren't looking so rosy for concrete art up in King City.

Quick background for those who don't like hyperlinks: Shift is one of Serra's earliest site-specific installations. Commissioned in 1970 by the now elusive art collector Roger Davidson, the work sits in an anonymous field planted with corn and soy about 40 kilometres north of Toronto. Davidson, who commissioned the work, sold the land on which the installation sits in the 1980s to Hickory Hill Investments, a development company whose designs on the land have finally come to fruition.

Back in 2009, it seemed that Shift had dodged a bullet when King council voted to designate it a protected cultural landscape via the Ontario Heritage Act. Shortly thereafter, Hickory Hill announced that it would appeal the decision to the Ontario Conservation Review Board (CRB). Later in 2010, word got out that the AGO was in talks to assume ownership of the installation.

Richard Serra ShiftThe latest, via the Globe, is that those talks broke down on account of issues related to the public accessibility of the installation. And here we arrive at the crux of the matter. Hickory Hill's argument is that it has no intention to demolish the piece, so no protection is necessary. That sounds fair — if you think of Shift as a structure, as a few rows of concrete lost among a sea of corn rows.

That's not really what it is.

Shift is actually the entire field. It's the space between concrete and corn, between art and nature. Sure, it has its boundaries — they were marked decades ago when a different kind of development divvied up the land for the purposes of farming. What Serra challenges visitors to imagine is a co-dependance that defines the visible landscape, where the sculpture itself is but one element within the larger milieu.

That's why preservation efforts are so complicated. Hickory Hill suggests that Shift is a private piece on private land, and that because it doesn't have plans to knock the work down, no one should mind if it's surrounded by one of its cookie-cutter developments.

There are, of course, other ways of looking at the situation. While Shift is already something of a hidden gem, the relative importance of the work demands that efforts are made to ensure not just its maintenance but its continued accessibility. Serra always thought of the landscape at large when he installed Shift, and it would be best if the CRB did so too as it makes its decision regarding the future of the work.



Alex / August 14, 2012 at 10:53 am
Yes, we must preserve a pile of concrete in the middle of nowhere! I can safely say that the world will not be lessened by tearing down this silly eyesore.
jer / August 14, 2012 at 11:01 am
I am a big art lover but if someone bought a Picasso and wanted to lock it up in a safe or destroy it, there is nothing I or anyone else can do about it. Why should a private land owner be required to preserve an art installation on private land? If the art community wants to preserve this so much they should buy that land off the developer at fair market value.
Adam / August 14, 2012 at 11:07 am
In the Globe article, it states that, though the developer isn't interested in removing this piece at the moment, they're also not paying for any upkeep or responsible for any damage that it takes.

How long do you think it'll be before someone 'accidentally' runs a backhoe through this piece and, its historical value ruined, they just decide to remove it enitrely?

Even being aware of the difficulty people have trying to preserve sites whose significance cannot be argued--eg Postal Station K at Yonge & Eglinton--I'm left wondering if our governments and ministries have no real power to intervene and do the right thing in these situations, or simply no appetite to?

As if building on the Oak Ridges Moraine wasn't bad enough...
Phil / August 14, 2012 at 11:11 am
I'm no art lover, but absolutely appreciate why the art community feels the ways it does about most of what I have seen. In this case, I must apologize but see nothing more than eyesore concrete.
Grant replying to a comment from Alex / August 14, 2012 at 11:14 am
Alex, are you talking about the art, or the pile of crap eyesore the developer is going to build on more of Ontario's best farmland?
belvedere replying to a comment from Grant / August 14, 2012 at 11:24 am
u r so right, king township is such a gorgeous place and is being ruined by development. get ready for northward and eastern creep of richmond hill and vaughan strip malls. soon serra's sculpture will be used as abutments in a parking lot.
Simpleton replying to a comment from Phil / August 14, 2012 at 11:34 am
The "art community" refers people such as yourself as knuckle dragging simpletons because you "don't get" why a bunch of zig zagging concrete in the middle of a muddy field isn't "art", when clearly it represents something majestic your brain is simply too small to comprehend.

That said, I agree it's just a bunch of concrete in a field.

Maybe some of the criminals BlogTO continually pimps as "artists" could head up and cover it in graffiti and then whine about how it's their god given right to vandalize other's property as long as it's in the name of "art"?
Pk replying to a comment from Alex / August 14, 2012 at 11:42 am
Nor is the world improved by your comment.

metric replying to a comment from Alex / August 14, 2012 at 11:58 am

That's exactly the kind of response I'd expect from a cretinous small-minded Toronto redneck. You make Toronto mediocre.
Mike replying to a comment from metric / August 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm
"Your subjective interpretation of a wholly subjective sphere of culture doesn't align with my subjective interpretation, therefore you are of lesser intelligence than me and, thus, make the city I live in less desirable."
Ts replying to a comment from Simpleton / August 14, 2012 at 12:16 pm
Simpleton indeed.
McRib replying to a comment from Simpleton / August 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm
your whole post is just one big fart.
metric replying to a comment from Mike / August 14, 2012 at 01:02 pm
Yes Mike, I find myself continually let down by the large contingent of unthinking and small minded people living in Toronto made all the more apparent by the fact that Rob Ford was elected. Utterly appalling. The kind of thinking that is prevalent here would be met with disbelief in many parts of the world.
Alex2 / August 14, 2012 at 01:02 pm
How many people regularly go see it? How many of you commenting have gone up there, or were even aware of its existence before now? I hate suburban developments that just produce a sea of houses, but you can't let a developer buy a piece of land and then after they've paid for it say they can't use it. Especially in this instance where it was a privately commissioned piece of art for one person who tired of it or couldn't afford the space for it anymore. If King City wants to preserve it then they have to buy the land back from the developer for market value. It's not like this was ever public art to begin with.

I highly doubt this is what would happen, but wouldn't it be cool if the developer uses the art to create the new neighbourhood? I.e. somehow planning the houses around the curves or something. Instead they'll probably just put one road into it, build a sea of houses, force the city to pay for improvements to the infrastructure out there to handle it, sell it off, and then leave (but will throw the art in as much marketing as humanly possible and name the whole development Shift, or Shift Enclave, or Shift Forest). People will buy the houses, complain about traffic and lack of amenities, and then 10 years later a big Shoppers Drug Mart strip mall will go in.
LOL replying to a comment from Simpleton / August 14, 2012 at 01:03 pm
Blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah is all i hear
Jeff replying to a comment from Alex2 / August 14, 2012 at 02:44 pm
" force the city to pay for improvements to the infrastructure out there to handle it,"

You obviously don't know how development works. The developer is responsible for all costs/expenses of servicing the lots from the existing road and when the builder builds a house they are paying upwards of 50,000 per lot in "development" fees that go to increasing capacity of the system.
mike / August 14, 2012 at 03:13 pm
King city is terrible, they allow anyone to build on top of the Oak Ridges moraine just because they have a bad self esteem.
Veronica / August 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm
Richard Serra's work is undoubtedly some of the most fundamental site-specific art ever created. Preservation of the physical aspects must be concurrent with the conceptual - its the premise of this type of work. Destruction, neglect or repurposing of cultural heritage is sadly de riguer in Toronto. We are the Rockefeller in this sitch, destroying a Rivera mural for "progress" (at least Rock.'s reason makes for a compelling character flaw, a suburban prefab is way less illustrious).
Karie / August 16, 2012 at 12:04 am
It'd be sad to see Shift go but given the history of Serra's work - i feel like even if it doesn't survive the development, its removal or burial may ingrain it in our urban subconscious more than ever. More alive in its death? blah blah blah
metric replying to a comment from Veronica / August 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm
@ Veronica. It's a reliefe to hear something intelligent written here.
justin stein / August 19, 2012 at 07:13 am
Roger davidsion died six years ago.Homeless on streets of toronto . Strange to read about him now
Adam / September 5, 2012 at 04:05 am
I`m so grateful that you enlightened me and the most important thing that it happened in time.
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