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TORONTO — Forget “Spiral Jetty” and “Double Negative.” The most inaccessible work of Land Art is sitting in Toronto’s own backyard.
The practice of creating site specific landscape interventions, popularized by artists like Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer in the late 1960s and early 70s, has long been associated with remote, difficult to reach locations. Having traveled to the distant salt lake shore of Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) in Utah and spent several fruitless hours searching for Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969) atop the arid Mormon Mesa in Nevada, I can attest to the long distances, sturdy vehicles, and functional GPS systems required to reach these sites. Unlike Richard Serra’s landmark sculpture, “Shift” (1972), however, none of them involve illegal trespassing.
“Shift” is located on private property 50 kilometers north of Toronto in King City, Ontario, and in the past few years the landmark has been embroiled in seemingly endless political debates over its status as a protected cultural heritage site.
The family of art collector Roger Davidson originally owned the land. After roaming the then 13-acre potato farm in the summer of 1970, Serra gave Davidson two sculptures in exchange for using the field to build a site-specific work. Both parties anticipated the continued ownership of the land by the Davidson family, so no formal contracts were signed. Naturally, the land was sold to a developer two years after the sculpture’s completion. For several decades “Shift” languished unnoticed, its presence forgotten. Plans to develop the property surfaced in the 1990s, sparking interest on the part of residents previously unaware of the landmark in their midst.
This renewed interest culminated in a November 2009 vote in which the township councilors decided to designate “Shift” a protected cultural site. The decision was met with resistance from the current landowner, Toronto-based development company Hickory Hill Investments, which had already announced plans to build on the property near the sculpture. The developer declared its commitment to keeping “Shift” intact and believed this pinky-swear would provide sufficient peace of mind. They drew attention to the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, which protects the site as a green space, but has no bearing on the artistic value of the location. The issue remained unresolved until August 2012 when the Ontario Conservation Review Board (CRB) convened a hearing and determined “Shift” does not merit official protection because it lacks adequate “community context” and “associative value.”
Fortunately, the Township of King decided to override the disdainful conclusion of the CRB. At the end of February councilors voted again to prepare a bylaw designating the sculpture as having “cultural heritage value.” Under the Ontario Heritage Act this designation protects “Shift” against destruction or alteration in perpetuity. Hickory Hill Investments fought this decision, arguing that it is “inappropriate and unnecessary” for a “private piece of art on private property.” This statement is unsettling for a number of reasons, not least of which is the repeated emphasis on privacy. Serra always anticipated the piece being available to eyes beyond those of the property owners.
In light of this fraught history, in which the fate of “Shift” still seems tenuous, I decided to visit the site myself. My friend and travel partner in Land Art adventures, Deana, was a willing accomplice. Upon our arrival in King City, it was immediately apparent why development is such a prevalent issue. Entire communities are in the midst of construction in every corner of the city. Based on our amateur reading of a Google Earth printout, we concluded the easiest point of access was from the eastern roadway, where a no trespassing sign marks the path. Wary of the exposed highway-side parking, we opted to instead leave the car in a parking lot for the rapidly rising King Oaks housing development on the westerly side. This fortuitous decision led to the discovery of newly-minted street names like “Richard Serra Court” and “Sculptors Gate.” Clearly, the once forgotten Serra has now permeated the city’s consciousness.
We meandered along the newly-constructed “Richard Serra Court” and snuck past construction workers building roofs. After the work zone we confronted our first major obstacle: two fences. In a series of moves devoid of both grace and elegance, we managed to scale the double fence and found ourselves in a muddy field. Beyond the potentially reptile-laden muck lay a forest. We bush-wacked our way through the sharp-edged tree branches of the forest, edged along a fallen log to cross a small stagnant stream, then poked through more trees, finally catching our first glimpse of the concrete sliver in the distance.
The physical exertion and law breaking paid off. “Shift” zigzags across an enormous cornfield (corn husk remnants cover the ground), drawing attention to the shape of the landscape by both conforming to and accentuating the undulating field. There are two sections of “Shift”, and each appears to move towards the other in echoed tandem. Each section is composed of concrete walls jutting out from the earth and rising or falling in height. The zigs and zags of the walls also vary in length, from 90 to 240 feet. Only the width remains constant, allowing visitors just enough foot space to walk along the sculpture. There are six concrete walls altogether and it’s possible to see why residents who came upon the site in earlier decades believed it to be the remnants of a building foundation, though it would have been quite the surreal structure. It hardly bears mentioning that photographs fail to capture the utter enormity and stunning character of “Shift.” To appreciate “Shift” is to walk its concrete lengths, feeling how the horizontal sculpture mimics the rolling field.
Although structurally sound, the sculpture is clearly in need of conservation. While no one expects Land Art to remain in pristine condition, the giant cracks and graffiti are evidence of patent neglect. The status quo is untenable. The CRB — and by extension the provincial government’s — lukewarm stance on “Shift” as a matter of historical, artistic, and civic importance is, quite frankly, embarrassing. Serra is a world-renowned artist and “Shift” a remarkable early career sculpture – he was only 32 at the time of construction. It is also one of only two Serra sculptures made of concrete, as steel is the artist’s preferred sculptural material. The municipal embrace of “Shift” and open recognition of its significance is laudable.
There is, of course, much more at stake than a moniker denoting status. Tied up within these debates are questions surrounding protection, preservation, and public access. Who is responsible for maintaining “Shift”? And perhaps even more pertinent, who should bear the financial burden of this maintenance? What is the point of protecting art if it remains sealed off from the public? While I would love to see the site made available to people unwilling to risk a trespassing charge, I also fear the potential for commercialization and encroaching infrastructure. What would happen if a “Richard Serra Café” or gift shop opened nearby, amid the residential construction? The benefit of creating Land Art in remote locations is the low risk of distraction. Dufferin Street and its passing cars are already visible from “Shift.” Much of the work’s intended aesthetic and conceptual appeal would be destroyed in the face of additional development.
Canadians have a tendency to celebrate artists who focus on our landscape, as evidenced by the continual glut of historical “Group of Seven” exhibitions marched out every year. Rather than put paint to canvas, Serra’s “Shift” revels in the landscape by becoming a part of it. Surely, this compulsion is one Canadians can relate to and understand. It’s worth noting that Ontario’s other large-scale Serra sculpture, “Tilted Spheres” (2002–4) is also only partially accessible. No trespassing is required in that case, merely an international plane ticket or clearance to the Toronto Pearson Airport departures lounge. Ontario residents have been living side by side with Richard Serra’s work for years, many just haven’t realized it.
Unfettered public access is required to foster a sense of pride in having a landmark sculpture like “Shift” located in our community. Without it, the fate of “Shift” remains shaky and the sculpture will continue to be neglected by those best situated to appreciate it.