PRINT September 1980

St. John’s Rotary Arc

I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT of the Rotary as being a turntable, a cartwheel, a bottleneck extension, a continuation and completion of the New Jersey Turnpike, a highway roundabout at the exit of the Holland Tunnel and the entrance to Manhattan, a place where cars continually turn and cross lanes in apprehension of changing directions as they enter New York coming from New Jersey a space polluted by exhaust fumes, a scene of incessant change, a hub, a place of rush hour glut, a place of disorientation (and permanent rotation) where, at various times of the day, the density of traffic screens the inner center of the Rotary enforcing the distinction between the inside and the outside of the space so that it seems to open and close with the traffic flow.

The gravel pit in the center of the traffic rotation is a blind spot bounded by asphalt—an enclosed void. a leftover. deserted isolated area a detached territory, only used by truckers as a repair stop and by the police, who occasionally drive across chasing traffic violators. It is an inaccessible place (excluding pedestrian passage) bounded by one-way arteries and enclosed by industrial architecture. The only pedestrian avenue is a steel footbridge over the exiting tunnel traffic connecting Soho and Tribeca (Varick Street and Laight Street) The bridge platform functions as an urban belvedere overlooking the Rotary allowing the only comprehensive reading of the site. From the ground level the geometric shape of the gravel area is illusory, unreadable as form.

The Arc’s inclusion in the Rotary gives a sculptural definition to the place. Size, scale and placement of the work respond to the topographical characteristics of the site: The Arc, at a height of 12 feet, takes its measure, or dimensional cue, from the heights of the tunnel, footbridge, trucks, buses, and groundfloors of surrounding buildings. It is the only sharp elevation in the Rotary and it establishes a transition between the flatness of the Rotary and the frontality of the surrounding architecture. By aligning itself with the tops of the trucks and the bottom of the footbridge, by cutting into and partially masking the first floors of the surrounding buildings, the horizontal span of the Arc establishes a cross-sectional reading of the entire field and redefines the scale of the site.

The shape and placement of the work respond to the direction of the tunnels serpentine exit road which turns abruptly in one direction. then the other. The curvature of the sculpture continues the turn into the Rotary, while the exit road veers into an ellipse around the Rotary. The sidesight line of the exit road, as it aligns itself with the Arc, is ascertained by following the cement abutment which walls off and separates the tunnel exit from Canal Street. The work was staked out in relationship to this abutment. It happened that the line of the stakes intersects the center of the Rotary.

The 200-foot Arc is a quadrant of an 800-foot circle. its center being located at the asphalt edge of the Rotary (Varick Street side) where the oval begins to contract. In effect, the line of the Arc cuts through the center of the Rotary whereas the patch of the Rotary cuts through the projected center of the 800-foot circle. The placement of the Arc defines a volumetric concavity and convexity (i.e. the delineated area of the Rotary functions as a bottom or ground plan which the Arc divides into two discrete sculptural volumes). The Arc does not represent the context, but redefines its content. It mediates a perception of the site but ultimately refocuses attention on itself.

THE CONTEXTUAL ISSUES OF THE site-specific work remain problematic. Site-specificity is not a value in itself. Works which are built within the contextual frame of governmental, corporate and religious institutions run the risk of being read as tokens of those institutions. One way of avoiding ideological co-optation is to choose leftover sites which cannot be the object of ideological misinterpretation. There are sites wherein it is obvious that art work is being subordinated to/ accommodated to/adapted to/subservient to/required to/useful to . . .

Other than being indifferent to questionable ideologies and uses, the Rotary site has no romantic, historical, architectural, esthetic or picturesque pretensions; no commercial or symbolic references. The Rotary is totally defined by its multiple traffic regulatory functions, which in themselves create a useless central area. This central area, unstructured and empty, is open to pedestrian and vehicular viewing. There are two distinct zones of movement around the Rotary: highway roundabout/one-way streets/sidewalks of the one way streets, and the footbridge. The existing traffic paths, which are the viewing edges into the Rotary were factors in the conception of the Arc and determine its viewing. Statements pertaining to the viewing of a work of art are always speculative. “The driver” and “the pedestrian,” as viewers of the Arc, are fictions.

Coming out of the confinement of the Holland Tunnel there is an abrupt transition, which causes momentary dislocation and disorientation. The drivers attention is focused on the task at hand, a series of fast decisions. Attention. by necessity, excludes past and future. The immediacy of what is directly in front. at a close distance. demands full concentration. The elliptical loop of the Rotary is designed to slow down the tunnel traffic in order to stabilize and refocus attention. As the driver enters into this loop the Arc appears in the field of vision. The shape material and wall-like character of the Arc echo the experience of driving through the open canyon of the tunnel exit. The driver’s attention is focused forward to the right and to the left, in order to read signs, change lanes and exit uptown or downtown. The Arc, seen through the moving frame of the car-window, thus appears and reappears. Following the roundabout, the driver sees the Arc to the left and, obliquely, in front. From almost every position in the oval. the Arc rotates centrifugally outward. This centrifugal reading opposes the drivers centripetal movement. The only positions where this perception is interrupted are the points perpendicular to the centers of convexity and concavity, where the curve flattens and stabilizes.

Driving around the Rotary, both the Arc’s convexity and concavity foreshorten then compress, overlap and elongate. The abrupt and continuous succession of views is highly transitive, akin to a cinematic experience. The entire field of vision is condensed, concentrated and extended within minutes. A driver’s viewing experience of the Arc is ordered, controlled, filtered and limited and is fixed to only one viewing sequence, which is determined by the traffic flow around the Rotary.

FOR A PEDESTRIAN VIEWING SEQUENCE is not predetermined. Where one starts is irrelevant. A curve, having no beginning no end, no back, no front, no right, no left, denies a starting point, and any hierarchy of views and viewing positions. The pedestrian acknowledges the entire contextual field and sees the Arc within its diversity. The work focuses attention and reorients perception of the site in its placement and sweep, the Arc sums up the of the Rotary. In its length and height, it establishes a measure.

The Rotary is bound by four one-way streets. The pedestrian looks from the periphery of the Rotary inward to the work, across the highway and through the traffic. The scale of the Arc changes depending on the viewer’s distance and location.

On the East, Varick street runs South, downtown: walking down Varick Street, the Arc foreshortens, expands and flattens to a plane. Standing on line with the visual center of the work (halfway down the block) its top edge curves outward and up at the limits of peripheral vision. Walking Varick, the Arc can be read as a site-specific metaphor in that it echoes the content of a tunnel traffic appears, disappears, reappears.

On the South, Ericsson Street runs East to Varick walking across the exit ramp onto Ericsson Street toward Hudson Street, the curve snakes back on itself and reads as a half circle. Moving further down to the corner of Hudson, the concavity is overlapped, abridged. The convex curve moves outward and away in a seemingly unending arc.

On the West, Hudson Street runs North, uptown walking up Hudson Street the convexity of the Arc appears enigmatic, obdurate, wall-like. It flattens gradually to an elongated, slow curve, which appears concentric with the roundabout, when standing on axis with Hubert Street. Here, on line with the visual center of the convexity the top edge curves downward and away at the limits of peripheral vision.

On the North, Laight Street runs West to Hudson walking down Laight Street toward the footbridge, the convexity closes in a sharp turn. Before the steps of the bridge, the pedestrian is comparatively near to the Arc and in line with both its edges. Ascending the steps to the first landing, the pedestrian is literally measured against the height of the work. Walking up to the platform, the pedestrian looks over the overlapping convexity into the expanding curvature of concavity. In a matter of steps, the appearance of the Arc changes from a half circle to an elongated hooklike shape. Crossing the bridge the convexity diminishes. In effect, the line of the top edge of the flattened curve draws a cross-sectional line into the elevation of the truck traffic and the surrounding architecture, while the bottom edge is read as a dividing line in relationship to the oval of the Rotary. Walking up and across the bridge, the pedestrian experiences a quick succession of changing views of the Arc.

The duration of viewing time distinguishes the pedestrian's experience of the Arc from that of the driver. Both the pedestrian and the driver retain a multiplicity of successive views. For the driver the multiplicity of views is embedded in an unseparable temporal and spatial continuum, whereas the pedestrian can parcel out images; intuit, fill in, complete, reconstitute, reorder, reflect, refer to, relate to, interpret, compare, remember. Given this essential distinction, the experiences of driver and pedestrian are identical in that neither can ascribe the multiplicity of views to a Gestalt reading of the Arc. Its form remains ambiguous, indeterminable, unknowable.

Richard Serra is an artist who lives and works in New York City.

The ideas in this article were worked out in conversation with Ciara Weyergraf. (R.S.)