Monday, January 30, 2012

Monument to Industrial History

The German city of Essen is situated in a densly populated area of western Germany known as the Ruhr district.  Until the decline of the coal market in the 1960s and 1970s, this region was exceedingly industrial, thick with coal mines and coal processing plants.  (Perhaps you remember from school lessons on the industrial revolution, that processed coal, called coke, was needed in huge amounts to feed the furnaces in order to produce the great metals of industry, iron and steel.)  Today, most of the coal mines and processing plants in the Ruhr are shut down, although some are cleaned up and open to tourists.  Still populating the skyline however, the thin metal smokestacks remind residents and visitors of this regions history.

Also shaping the landscape are large heaps of coal refuse -the impure bits which couldn't be used in the delicate process of steel- and iron-making.  Nothing can grown on these mounds of coal.  They are mountainous monuments to the side-effects of industrialization, powerful and disquietingly barren.

In 1998,  Richard Serra, a great contemporary sculptor of iron and steel, erected a monument on top of one of the coal heaps in Essen.  I visited it last year.

The sculpture cannot be seen without a bit of work.  To even get to the coal heap, I climbed an exhaustingly long staircase, leading out of a rather normal looking picnic area.  But on reaching the top of the staircase, it felt as if I had come out onto the moon.

The ground was dry, black and crumbly.  The green foliage which had moments before surrounded me gave way to emptiness.  I was surrounded by nothing but wind and distance.  Ahead of me, on the top of the mound, was the sculpture Richard Serra had erected.  So far away, its shape mirrored the smokestacks dotting the horizon.  I continued my walk toward it, feeling almost like I was making some sort of a pilgrimage across a wasteland.  


Richard Serra, Bramme for the Ruhr District, 1998, raw steel

The sculpture is 14.5 meters high, 4.2 meters wide, and 0.13 meters thick.  It is made of rusting steel, with the kind whose surface which could scrape the skin of your muscles.  It felt gigantic when I reached it, although it was standing atop a mound much much more gigantic than it.  The bottom two meters, the part reachable by humans, had been graffitied, and the graffiti struck me as both an ugly desecration of the art, and yet somehow also an appropriate addition to the industrial aesthetic of the sculpture.  

Most of Serra's sculptures are what is called Site-Specific, an important term for contemporary art history, describing an artwork which is designed and planned to fit into a specific space, and would thus, not really work if it were transfered to another space.  I would argue that for a site-specific sculpture like this one, not only the steel making up the pillar, but the entirety of the space around, from the coal-mound underfoot, to the smokestacks on the horizon is part of the sculpture.  Even though Serra himself didn't build either the smokestacks or the coal-mound, by placing his pillar where and how he did, he causes the visitor to think differently about these things.  Serra said about this monument that he wanted to: "hold onto the moment, in which a civilization dies and something new begins".

Without Richard Serra's sculpture, I would have probably have been only appalled by the signs of industrialization which permeate this place.  With the sculpture, I was able to see the wistful beauty of this history.  

Come back tomorrow for another post about Serra, and some controversy with his site-specific sculptures.  


  1. An interesting narrative, as we've come to expect from you, Lex. I connect with your story in another way, since the burning of coal is one of the most important causes of air pollution in human history. It is also, certainly, the single most important cause of anthropogenic climate change. Some planetary scientists have coined a name for the current epoch, anthropocene, suggesting the possibility that earth itself is on its way to becoming a human artifact.

    - abba

    1. Thanks Abba for that really interesting addition. The idea that this pollution, both the heaps of coal shards and the air pollution are so pervasive as to call an epoch after human influence, makes this sculpture resonate so much more deeply. The idea of an anthropocene is a scary reality, but something we maybe have to come to understand and to live with as well as we can.