Entering the void of Richard Serra’s ‘Equal Parallel Guernica-Bengasi’

The works of the American artist Richard Serra are typically abstract, spacious and often without any reference to concrete political events. An exception is Equal Parallel Guernica-Bengasi – a room-filling sculpture made specifically for Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1986 and permanently exhibited since 2009. It is just as abstract as his other creations, yet its title evokes reflection about the nature of human suffering in the course of hostilities. However, does it make sense to connect the abstract shapes of the sculpture with concrete events occurring during military campaigns? In this short text, I will explore the abstract qualities of Serra’s work and the war connotations of the title. This exercise will elucidate possible connections between abstract art and some aspects of international justice.

Description of the work

Emptiness is usually something we do not see. It is the space in between objects, the air surrounding us when we move. It is a void which is easily misunderstood for being nothing at all. In the work Equal Parallel Guernica-Bengasi emptiness plays a key role. The sculpture consists of two sets of large rectangular blocks of massive weathering steel – a typical material for Serra’s work – placed at both ends of the room. They are positioned in parallel, hence the title of the work – equal parallel. The eye-height size of the blocks makes it possible to look from one side of the room to the other. In between an enormous space is left empty. Yet, this space does not easily escape one’s attention. The blocks seem to foreground it and load it with meaning.

The chapel-like room for which the work is made has a rectangular form, with a high, arching ceiling and is completely plastered in white. It belongs to the 18th century part of the museum which used to be a hospital. Something of this past still seems present, but perhaps that is an effect of the work itself. The overall feeling of the space, as you walk through it, is serious and quiet. As if something tragic has just happened.

Just like his famous installation in Bilbao The Matter of Time (1994-2005) – a large maze-like installation made from enormous sheets of steel – the work invites movement. Having been many times inside Equal Parallel, I have seen the behaviour of many different visitors. Most people just cross the room, walking from one side to the other. Others hide behind one of the blocks, while playfully searching for eye-contact with their company on the other side. Very often, I see people cautiously touch the cold and rough steel, while making sure the guards do not see them. Some visitors carefully observe the colour tones of the material that change over time, noticing the rusty stains it leaves on the marble floor. Rarely anyone ever reads the title that can be found on a sign on the wall.

Analysing the title ‘Equal Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi’

In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed. It was an attack on civilians, as most military men were fighting elsewhere. Hundreds of people were killed. The reports of George Steer and the black and white photographs of the ruins of the city appeared in newspapers all around the world. This is how the modernist painter Pablo Picasso found out about it. He abruptly decided to change the subject of his contribution for the World Fair in Paris. 35 days later, his painting Guernica was finished.

In 1986, the American government ordered air strikes against Libya as a reprisal attack for a terrorist attack that had occurred ten days earlier, known as the West Berlin discotheque bombing. Some of the bombs administered during the US campaign fell on the city of Benghazi in Libya killing both civilians and military personnel. Just a little over a month later, Richard Serra’s solo exhibition at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid was inaugurated, featuring his site-specific work Equal Parallel Guernica-Bengasi.

Richard Serra denies any references to concrete military events. Yet, the title does not seem to be chosen at random. When making the work, Serra knew the sculpture would be placed in the very same building as Picasso’s world-famous Guernica. Mentioning Guernica in the title seems, therefore, a historical reference – as if his work is to be understood in the spirit of Picasso’s painting. Adding the name ‘Bengasi’ to it right after the American bombings in the very same year, unavoidably leads to searching for similarities.

This quest is reinforced by the parallel placement of the blocks and the word ‘parallel’ in the title. It is as if Serra gives his audience a quest: go and look for parallels! A student once asked me: “Which side is, then, Guernica, and which one Benghazi?”. It was an attempt to solve the puzzle and to read the sculpture as a symbolic work in which both cities were represented by another set of blocks. Yet, the work cannot be ‘read’ as if it were a medieval painting in which symbols have fixed interpretations. The difficulty with contemporary art is that it is not about straightforward representation. This is also why linking abstract art to a socio-political or legal topic, such as international justice, is so complex. There seems to be no direct correlation.

The absence of representation in contemporary art

This observation about the lack of representational connection between abstract art and socio-political causes is already true for Picasso’s Guernica. With the historical reference of the bombing in mind, it might seem as if Picasso literally painted the war scene. One could relate, for instance, the shattered perspective with the devastation of the city or the bodies screaming in pain with the victims. However, as the exhibition Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica in 2017 convincingly showed, most of the motives used in the painting had already appeared in Picasso’s work, years before the Spanish Civil War started. There are shattered guitars, and lovers resembling the women in Guernica that do not seem to have war-related meanings. The painting, therefore, appears not to represent the bombing of 1937, but rather it shows a carefully developed visual language with a certain expressive power. This power appears appropriate for the commemoration of the bombings in Guernica, but it would be a mistake to claim that the painting depicts the war event.

In Serra’s work, this is even more clear, because there are no figures to be seen. His work can be placed in the tradition of minimalist art. As art theorist Charlotte Hantelmann explains in her article The Experiential Turn (2014), minimal art lets go of the view that a particular idea must be expressed by the artist or an object. She writes:

The artwork is no longer seen as representing a mental, internal space or consciousness. Instead it forms part of an external space—which it shares with its viewer—in which meaning is produced in relation to a given situational reality. Internal relations of form and content retreat behind the object’s impact on this situation, an impact that throws viewers back on themselves, in a space and a situation.

Applied to Equal Parallel Guernica-Bengasi, this means that not only the weathering steel blocks, but the whole of the situation must be considered, when interpreting the work. The former hospital space, the people who move in it and the space that is left empty all seem to play a role. Yet, all of this cannot be understood in a fixed way. The fact that the creation integrates and encompasses the people who move and feel within the sculpture dictates its interpretation. Even though the atmosphere of Serra’s work might affect the mood of the visitors, their response cannot be predicted. There is no control of how the work will be experienced.

An opposite approach can be found in the installation Crying Room by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. In this work, that was part of her solo exhibition in Tate Modern in London in 2018, an empty room was reserved for mourning people who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, while fleeing to Europe. In order to control the response of the audience, Bruguera infused the room with a chemical compound that made people cry. The idea was that the automatic crying response would eventually evoke feelings of sadness that she considered appropriate for the remembrance of the deaths.

Whether this approach worked, is another question. Yet, by taking the exact opposite approach, Bruguera’s Crying Room reveals, in negative, a quality of Serra’s work. Equal Parallel does not force people to feel a certain way. It does not dictate an appropriate reaction. Everyone is free to respond in their own way, in the room. One might play there, enjoy it in silence or ponder over the title.

Concluding observations: the body matters

Perhaps this freedom is what an abstract work such as Equal Parallel can add to thinking about international justice. It is the opposite of propaganda. Rather than providing the public with a particular narrative or statements about the air raid, it reserves a space for experience, in which people have the freedom to respond how they want. Learning about the title of the work, will eventually prompt some visitors to connect their experience in the sculpture with the stories of the bombings.

Doing the latter, is very different from learning about these events in a theoretical context. Since the sculpture of Serra highlights the space, it allows visitors to physically connect with the topic of the damage inflicted by military operations. Body, space and the material of the work are involved. The point is not to make sense of that in a discursive way, but to allow for a more embodied way of thinking about such topics. Serra seems to say: who you are, where you are and the moment you are experiencing it matter for how you perceive the conflicts of the past. In that sense Equal Parallel is not even that different from his seemingly ‘non-political’ works such as The Matter of Time. It is a materialisation of time, without fixing it in a certain way.

This blog post was written for https://artij.org/ , a platform dedicated to studying the relation between art and international law. Find the original text here.

Pictures by Wilbert van de Kamp.

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