PRINT December 1979

Three by Serra

IN THE LATE 1960S and early ’70s many artists involved in painting, sculpture, and “body” and conceptual art began making films as well as videotapes. Unlike their counterparts involved exclusively in the film avant-garde, who were examining the medium very self-consciously, the artists came to it from other practices and generally chose to ignore the nuances of the film medium in order to use it for other purposes. They were influenced by Sol LeWitt’s dictum “All art is about ideas,” and unconcerned about the film strip, emulsion and other accompanying concerns.

Bruce Nauman was one of the first artists in the 1960s to use tape and film extensively. His four studio films of 1957–68, including Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, illustrate this principle. Nauman employed an unmoving camera to record his own repeated activities in his studio space, thereby elevating them to the status of art. Many of the artists who branched out into film in those years have now returned to their original concerns and have not produced films for four or five or more years, Vito Acconci, Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman among them, while Larry Weiner, John Baldessari and Richard Serra have continued their filmmaking from time to time over the spread of years.1

Of the 11 films that Richard Serra has made since 1968 (along with five videotapes), one is a kinescope and two are films made collaboratively. One is as short as two minutes, while the longest runs 36 minutes. Serra’s first four films, which were shown in the “Anti-Illusion” show at the Whitney in 1968, are the “Hand and Process” series: Hand Catching Lead, Hand Lead Fulcrum, Hands Scraping and Hands Tied—all silent, very short, very direct and to the point, and filmed in black and white with an unmoving camera.

Steelmill is Serra’s most recent film. Completed this year, it was made in collaboration with Clara Weyergraf. Of all of his films, Steelmill, Railroad Turnbridge (his next most recent, dating from 1976) and Frame, of 1969, are the best, and they deserve particular attention for the ways in which they treat their respective subject matters and also in the shift of concern traced in them from the earliest to the most recent of the three.

The tendentious and tenacious metaphor of film as window onto the world does work well in examining this trio of Serra’s films, especially as one is called Frame and has, in fact, a window frame. There are those who would like to appropriate Frame into the realm of “film as film,” and, while it is self-conscious of the medium and relies on characteristics unique to it, this is backgrounded and incorporated into larger preoccupations of Serra’s at a given time that are visible in his sculpture. These include an emphasis on process, the trapezoid as a particular shape, arid a larger and continuing interest in perception. The trapezoid, of course, fits perfectly well into this last as an example of what is versus what we can see, the measure of the reality and the reality itself, the representation which we see and hear as illusion and its contradiction with the real. All of these are taken into account in Frame through camera angle, point of view and framing. The film is as much conceptual as it is perceptual and verbal description highlights its perceptual contradictions.

Very briefly, Serra’s Frame opens on a white screen with a hand at the film’s frame edge. The hand traces around it with a 6-inch ruler, and a drawing is made of the screen frame, but no measurements are given. It is Serra who is holding the ruler, although we never see more than his arms and he never identifies himself. Throughout the film we hear him ask the help of the cameraman in guiding him in his drawing and measuring. Next, an open window is filmed from an angle as a white plaster board is quickly placed over it. When Serra measures the frame he produces a trapezoid, in contradiction to what we see, because the camera is at an angle to the board but we perceive only a rectangle. For the third time the window frame is now measured and comes out rectilinear; and while we know it to be a rectangle, we see it as a trapezoid, again because of camera angle. In the fourth and last shot a film of the window frame is projected over the white board and measured as a trapezoid.

Frame centers on concerns with point of view and with the viewer as subject. The frame serves as a convenient perceptual device that appears to be one thing while being another. Serra’s is a highly self-conscious work, which can increase the viewer’s awareness of the processes of art and its plays with representation and illusion in film and in other media. Those interested in “film as film” may place Frame in their camp, but those aware of Serra’s other work tend to see it otherwise, and rightly so. For here the film materials are not used as ends in themselves, but serve process and perception.

While, literally and metaphorically, we do not really see much out of the window in Frame, Railroad Turnbridge offers us a view of and from a bridge. While he was working in Portland, Oregon, in 1975, Serra became enchanted with the Draw Span Turn-bridge on the Burlington Northern Railroad at the Williamette River and decided to make a film. The concerns constantly present in his sculpture and drawing—weight, directness and immediacy, mass, physicality, blacks and whites, diagonals, dramatic straight lines—all reappear in this nine-minute film. The film’s silence matches well the bridge’s slow movement, its strength and graceful presence. Railroad Turnbridge analyzes the angular beauty of the machinery and its precision, and the very slow pace of the film’s rhythm comes from the motion of the bridge itself.

Not only does the film take its rhythm from the movement of the bridge, but it takes its structure from the combination of the bridge’s construction of hard lines in steel and its functioning pivots and arcs in space. There is a lovely combination, tantamount to a contradiction, at work here between the arcs and circles traced and the hard steel lines of the bridge. With one exception, all of the shots capture the angularity of the machinery, while the film records the movement of and from the bridge, tracing trajectories in arcs as the bridge separates from its join with the railroad track and then returns to fit into place and form a straight path into the horizon. The one exception to the angular imagery is, significantly, at the center of the film: massive circling gears interlock as they cause the bridge to turn, as if echoing the circular enclosed structure of the film through to its very center. The film begins as the bridge slowly opens. We are taken away with the camera and, through the camera, we watch the landscape pass. The film ends with the turnbridge pivoting to place. Within this circular bracketing of beginning and end there are shots of the bridge opening and closing, and close-ups of its functioning parts.

Railroad Turnbridge is concerned with perception, though in a less self-conscious fashion than is Frame. Here there is movement in every frame. At times the movement of the camera or of the bridge or, seemingly, of the landscape, is disorienting, and we may lose track of precisely what is moving. We see through the bridge and across the tracks extending into the horizon, and watch the tracks separate and rejoin, and are caught up in the film and its movement, and the process of analysis of the bridge. The film’s circular structure brings it back in on itself even as its opening and closing images point out to infinite space through a framing arch, as the camera is aligned to shoot straight through the bridge.

Serra’s use of machinery, and his circular structure too, recall Léger’s Ballet Mécanique of 1924. Both works are about perception and both turn around on themselves. Léger’s shares and expresses in a vivacious, arrogant fashion, the ebullient optimism of his era about the machine and its capacities. It is not quite the same in Serra’s film. He estheticizes the machine less in his film than does Léger. Railroad Turnbridge expresses an admiration for the machine’s precision and its beauty but distances itself from the delirious enthusiasm of Léger some 50 and more years ago. Léger could celebrate in his art an industrial age still coming to its peak, still unknown in its potentials for good as well as for harm while the single machine, the turnbridge, in Serra’s film is, over 50 years later, an antique reflected upon from a postindustrial terrain.

In contrast with Léger’s estheticizing machines of all kinds in his Cubist film, in the 1920s the Soviets tended to heroicize machinery for social and economic ends, making it an extension of man, never self-enclosing it for purely esthetic ends. Theirs was another kind of optimism about machinery that was to be used create a totally new society. The iconography of their films presents the speed of the workers on the assembly line, the girl prominent on her tractor, one man in the coal mine and another in the steel mill forging away—with flames emanating from his labors, enough to set ablaze 100 romantic plots and poems. The machine was thought of as rescue, hope and salvation by peasant, worker, intellectual and artist alike. And this, too, was more than 50 years ago.

It is artistically and culturally useful to compare the representations of work and workers in the Soviet films of the ’20s with those in Serra and Weyergraf’s Steelmill of this year. In 1978 Serra was in Bochum in the Ruhr Valley, the center of West Germany’s steel production, meeting with technicians, craftsmen and workers at the mill, in preparation for the forging of his 70-ton steel cube. Weyergraf persuaded Serra to think in terms other than a filmed record of the Bochum piece by looking at the workers who were daily involved in the making of his monumental sculpture.

The result is a film in two parts. The first consists of interviews by Weyergraf with workers who asked not to be identified for fear of recrimination by management. Their voices are heard, with English titles appearing on a black screen. In the second part we watch the workers in the process of forging Serra’s cube, with its molten white glow, accompanied by the deafening sounds of the mill spoken of by the workers in the first part. It is quite possible to forget that we are watching a sculpture being forged, particularly on an initial viewing, unless we recall the first question and its three answers at the film’s beginning:

Q. When you forged the 70-ton cube, a piece of sculpture was being produced. Did that change your relation to your work?

A. I wouldn’t say so. As far as we were concerned, it was work like any other work.

A. No. Whether it was a work of art or any other forged block, it had to be made into a special form.

A. No. The cube was a lot of work, but any other piece—a crank shaft or a push rod—is as much a work of art. Its a work of art to bend a shaft, to forge it nicely.

Weyergraf also asked the workers about conditions in the mill, health hazards, unions and strikes, where else they might work if they could, their hopes and desires for themselves and their families and, lastly, about freedom in terms of their work and their aspirations. The first strike in a West German steel mill in 50 years occurred shortly after the film was shot, and the workers did not fare well. Surprising as it may seem, Serra and Weyergraf acknowledged that they had no political intentions when they set out to make the film, but with the response it has received, especially in West Germany, they now cannot help but see it as political. There, when it was presented to one of the official governmental committees that award monetary prizes, the film was not only rejected: an official note came back criticizing it for misinterpreting the steel mills, since steelworkers, according to the government writers, are well paid and content. In another instance, a large group of teachers voted to have their school district purchase the film for use in examining issues about German workers, but a board of higher authority rejected their decision. In still another, at a film festival in West Germany, Steelmill was severely criticized by the left for being too pessimistic and offering no solution. It is surprising that the film has aroused such reaction in West Germany from both the right and the left.

Listening to off-screen voices in German while the viewer reads the texts in English on a black screen is distancing. Watching the workers at their jobs evokes no romanticism about the mill. In contrast with classical Soviet film of more than 50 years ago, in Steelmill no elated workers enthusiastically wield their tools as the new heroes of their society. In Steelmill one can identify with neither the individuals nor with a collectivity: the shooting and cutting of the second part continues the distancing of the first, through long and extreme-long shots, and shots conveying both the rhythm and monotony of a task. The men are simply represented in relation to their machinery and their work on the 70-ton piece.

The bright white heat of the cube illuminates the film frame as it is moved from oven to cooling and other processes. If the bridge in Railroad Turnbridge has its own particular physicality, presence and directness, in Steelmill these qualities emanate from the cube being moved from process to process, but also from the images of the workers on the floor of the mill and the strange look of the mill itself. The frequent extreme-long shots, often crane shots from high above in the mill, dwarf both men and machines. And, when the camera nears the floor, the mill appears like a strange crater in a science-fiction film, with smoke slowly rising from it and with slag and scraps strewn over it. As a worker walks away from the camera his asbestos coat glitters strangely (on the black-and-white, low-contrast stock) and he appears like a gnome moving in a cavern of machines, or a circus performer about to take his audience on a journey of fancy. And now the film ends. There is still no romanticizing of worker or of machine through this imagery. If anything, these last images create a strange discontinuity, as if momentarily belying the reality of the mill on behalf of the illusions and representations of art—which include the work of sculpture being forged and recorded in the film.

What kind of shift occurs from Frame to Steelmill? Furthermore, why use film at all? Serra commented that for him it is possible to do something on film not possible in his sculpture, which is nonrepresentational, physical, literal, without metaphor. Film can convey directly and by analogy some of the same aspects as Serra’s other work, but it can also do something else: it can provide access to the “real” outside, through a play with representation that he rejects in his sculpture.

The window metaphor returns again. In his collaborative film with Weyergraf, Serra has eschewed the enclosed circular structures of his earlier Railroad Turnbridge and the enclosed reflexive perceptual devices of Frame. Steelmill is less formal than the two earlier films. It is used for documentation and social comment as well as for art and fancy. While it breaks out of the enclosures used in the two other films, distancing and some of the formal devices and meanings familiar from his other works are still present. Steelmill is a film recording the construction of a work of art in which the work itself often recedes both in the frame and in the mind of the spectator, in favor of a larger context of many realities of which art is only one.

The issues of “post-modernism” are now slowly being identified. The restlessness with enclosures of all kinds and a formalism turned rigidly back upon itself are vestiges of late modernism. Post-modernism presents a dilemma for painters and sculptors committed to a continuing dialogue with nonrepresentation. After its period of self-questioning, perhaps film and now also video can be important forms used by artists in other media to address the dilemmas of postmodern art and culture in order to convey tensions and questions that are silent in their other work. Steelmill is an example of such a film.

Regina Cornwell is a New York based critic whose first book, Snow Seen: the Films and Photographs of Michael Snow, is about to be published by Peter Martin Associates, Toronto (distributed by Macmillan of Canada).



1. Recently a younger generation has come through the art world, repudiating both ideas of “film as film” which had been current in the film avant-garde from the middle 1960s until three or four years ago, and of “artist’s films.” The films, which fall into a punk genre, are cultural and social extensions of the concept of artist’s films.