The Sublime and The Beautiful in Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”
Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” (2005) layers texture, color, and form in one moment and structures space and time in the next. Immanuel Kant’s twin aesthetic experiences, the sublime and the beautiful, are not detours off the phenomenological path often taken to interpret this eight-sculpture installation. They are destinations arrived at through an embodied interaction with the work. Better than phenomenological constructs, Kant’s aesthetic framework elucidates the dynamic that leads to the disoriented wonder evoked by Serra’s installation.
In a gentle subversion of both Kant’s restrictions and the contemporary disaffection toward the aesthetic, I undertake a journey into the paradoxical heart of Kant’s aesthetic judgments—each of which claims to be “universal” yet understands itself to be “subjective”—and into the spatial-temporal “void” that animates Serra’s process. My expedition reveals the porousness of the boundaries between participant and artwork, and the dispossession and re-constitution of self among subjects engaged in the aesthetic experience.
This journey demonstrates the vitality of Kant’s 18th century aesthetic categories by expanding the investigation of Serra’s work into areas that both a phenomenological interpretive framework and an art historical narrative overlook. Equally, the experience of Serra’s work brings Kant into the 21st century. It offers a palpable example of the capacity of art to evoke the sublime feeling, a capacity that Kant restricted to nature, and shows how a single work of art can evoke not simply one but both of these powerful aesthetic experiences.
The Serra sculpture in movement—or more precisely, in the context of my active temporal-spatial relationship with it—disorients and disturbs. It confounds not only my capacity to comprehend the limits of the form of an object, but also my capacity to exercise my own agency, leading to the sublime feeling. In the stillness of Kant’s “calm contemplation,” however, I no longer experience the installation’s bulges and hollows, layerings of shadow, and carvings out of space, as the activities of an overwhelming physical force. Stillness, even for a moment, allows me to step back and formulate a “form” from an experience that during movement had remained formless. I steal agency back from the sculpture, stepping away from the forced procession of the labyrinth. My mind-body focuses not on the unbounded space and time that the sculpture’s succession of panels compels me to endure, but on the bounded space and time that unfolds within the panels themselves. In this way, the elements of “The Matter of Time” have the capacity to lead double lives and to double the lives of their participants.
The final movement of my thesis suggests that the aesthetic space that unfolds in “The Matter of Time” is the space where the self—“I”—realizes its inevitable connection to others. That is, the desire to share the feeling—“this is beautiful” or “this is sublime”—takes me outside of my self and forces me to be both subjective and universal at the same time. This seems an impossible space in which to be, were it not the only place where any “I” am truly “myself.”