That familiar feeling of walking in circles: waking up every single day at the same time, mechanically brushing your teeth, going to work then back home. The movement of the Earth around the Sun. Cycles, circles, hedgehog day, continuity, never-ending, the start and finish line are the same. Walking in circles or writing in circles, the sensation is the same: Being stuck in a routine, enclosed in your mind, lacking any purpose.
Through distinct methods, across decades, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and Lawrence Weiner convey this feeling in their oeuvre.
Richard Serra’s gigantic steel installations fill the room with negative spaces. One cannot grasp the magnitude and impact of his sculptures by looking at an image of it. The only way to truly experience this kind of work is by filling the gaps and walking inside it — and, once you do, everything suddenly changes: you are not in a posh gallery in Chelsea, NY or at DIA Beacon anymore. The narrow high walls confine you, and the only way out is going through. It is an exercise in faith: to blindly trust that, by walking forward, somehow, you are going to get out of this maze — and, after a few curves, you eventually do. You are out of the piece — but the piece stays with you. The feeling will move along with you.
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty — a seminal piece of land art located Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah, makes you feel the same, but you have to walk the spiral in a more obvious way. Spiral Jetty is not meant to be ‘half’ walked — for people to walk back before reaching the center. Spiral Jetty is an exercise in conditioning: its construction and shape invites (or, obliges) you to walk the line, follow clear instructions — even when there is no one forcing you to. In theory, there is no higher purpose: you are not going to reach a new, magical space once you have done it — but, then again, you might. And it is that possibility, that gleam of hope, that makes you devote and fully connect with the experience. Like a Buddhist walking in circles around a stupa or a dervish spinning fast and frantically, by walking in circles through Spiral Jetty, you may find a deeper meaning, a new, ancient, truth. Smithson invites you to meditate, to get deeper, in a very ordained way. Just as Serra’s works, it is not about the piece itself, but the experience. It is about following orders without questioning it (or maybe even without realizing it) and see the effects that they cause on you. How you feel about it during and afterwards is what matters.
Ok, but what does Lawrence Weiner’s work have to do with it, one might ask? Everything. The title of the piece can be the perfect translation of what it feels to experience one of Serra’s sculptures or walking through Spiral Jetty: SOMEWHERE SOMEHOW FOREVER & A DAY, SOMETHING SOMEWAY FOREVER & A DAY, SOMETIME SOMEPLACE FOREVER & A DAY. The vagueness of the words and its meanings (‘somewhere’ can be anywhere; ‘somehow’ can be in any way; and ‘forever’ might be, in fact, just for a day) open the possibilities to infinity. It is entirely up to the viewer to fill the gaps and choose the ‘where,’ ‘how,’ ‘why’ and ‘when.’ The first time you read it, it seems like crazy-mumble-jumble: just a bunch of nonsense words, piled together. Once you take a second look at it, though, something starts to change.
You find the rhythm, hinted by the spaces and shapes underneath the words: ‘SOMEWHERE SOMEHOW’ are placed over a looser spiral, and there is a larger space between the words, making them sound slow, almost as if you are daydreaming. Then, ‘SOMETHING SOMEWAY’ is placed over a tighter spiral, with slightly less space between the words, making it sound more down-to-earth, in a statement tone. Finally, ‘SOMETIME SOMEPLACE,’ is written over a broken spiral going downwards. It is faster-paced (just a regular space between the words), in a defeatist tone. It feels like someone who just gave up.
Weiner’s installation is, essentially, a mental process: of a great idea or dream surfacing, and then reality making it slowly fade away until it is broken down, defeated. What the dream is about is entirely up to the viewer (‘somewhere,’ ‘somehow,’ ‘something’), but the failure is the same for everybody — over and over again, forever & a day. Semiotically, one could argue that Weiner hints that there still hope by choosing to colour the lines green — but, again, it is entirely up to you to decide if the glass is half full or not.
All in all, Serra, Smithson and Weiner pieces are almost spiritual experiences, acts of faith. You must trust the artist to guide you through them. It is not about the metal structure, or the lined-up rocks, or the black words on a white wall. It is about walking in circles, thinking in circles, in order to arrive (somehow, someway) someplace else. And once you do, you are no longer the same.