The Matter of Time | Richard Serra | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Work of art-audience relationship

“ These pieces have an accelerated time, it’s a changed time. It’s not the type of time with which I have been implicated with in any other space. And in this sense, there is a rupture between normal time and the time you experiment in these pieces. I’m not trying to sound esoteric, but it’s a fact. It’s like an abrupt leap through time. It is not linear; it is narrative. But that is how it is with art. Art builds a relationship with time that has no place in other fields”(1).


The Matter of Time invites the viewer to experiment sculpture while walking through it, inside of it and around it. The display of the pieces throughout the room develops from a relatively simple ellipse to the complexity of a spiral. The title The Matter of Time refers to the perception or aesthetic time, to the emotional or psychological time, different for each person, and depending on each person. The installation is organized in such a way that, as soon as the visitor enters the room, he/she penetrates the sculptural space. The placement of the pieces—from simple to more complex shapes—allows the viewer to perceive the development in Richard Serra’s (San Francisco, USA 1939) sculptures. You walk through the different passages—narrow and wide, compressed and expanded, closed and opened—without knowing where you are going. You are aware of where you have been, but not where you are going. You must create your own way. There is no single way to move through the work, each person experiments it in a different way. There is not a single view, a predetermined path or a single view point. Once inside the works, the viewer loses all reference and does not know what lies ahead. Perception is always fragmented. A balcony on the second floor allows a panoramic view of the whole space, revealing the exact location of the sculptures. However, and as Serra himself affirms, “the way the pieces rise always remains partially hidden”.

There are two Torqued Ellipses, 1996, in the installation. Their design is based on two identical torqued ellipses with a gap of two metres separating them from one another, forming a corridor. To explain to your students what a torqued ellipse is, ask them to imagine an oval or an ellipse figure on the floor and another oval or ellipse of the same size on the air floating above it, but turned in a 60º angle from the floor. Then, imagine a plate that surrounds and connects both ovals. The resulting shape is a torqued ellipse. There are simple and double torqued ellipses. From the outside you can appreciate that there are no vertical lines. When walking inside them, the walls sometimes tilt towards the inside or the outside, bulging and then receding. The steel plates fold until they reach an extreme tension and they form a skin that wraps the elliptical space. This is a shape that didn’t exist previously, neither in architecture or sculpture. This innovative shape makes steel look like an extremely flexible and dynamic material.

Both the Torqued Ellipses and the Spirals seem to be in continuous movement and include the viewer in their movement. The movement is created by a turn over on their own axis, which makes the piece turn upwards from its base without changing its radius. “They are torqued shapes which, when entering them, allow you to move to understand their torsion. When you move they move too in such a way that you are always trying to get them.”(2) These pieces mark an evolution from previous works such as Snake, 1995–97, where the conical section is the basic constructive unit.

To explain what a conical section is to your students, have them imagine that they are inside a flower pot–shaped space (the walls are tilted outward) or inside a space shaped as a lamp shade (where the walls tilt towards the inside). In both cases they are imagining shapes that are part of a cone, an inverted or standing one, and the radius of the base circle and the superior circle is different. Putting several steel plates together, each one tilting towards the next one in a specific direction, we feel that we are walking inside a pot-shaped space. After that, we feel like we are inside the structure of a lamp screen. That is how movement is created, by the elongation of a conical section shaped as a passageway. Conical sections have been repeatedly used in architecture; it is not so for the constructive units used in the Torqued Ellipses or in Spirals, where the radius doesn’t change and there is no visible vertical line.

The two final works of this evolution are created from toroidal sections—floaty or donut-shaped surfaces—and from sphere sections. These shapes combine to create space and passageways that produce different effects on the movement and perception of the viewer. The pieces transform in unexpected ways while the visitor is going around them, creating a sensation of movement. The title The Matter of Time refers, on the one hand, to the actual time that the viewer takes to wander through and observe the installation from beginning to end, and to the duration of the experience, the fragments of the physical and visual memory that remain to re–combine. The perception or aesthetic time, emotional or psychological, of the sculptural experience. “What the experience is will depend on the disposition of each person to remember their own history of knowledge of the different places, spaces, times and locations, etc.”(3) Serra is interested in the experience of perception; an experience that depends on movement through space and time. The external view of these sculptures does not anticipate their internal shape and therefore they need the viewer to become involved with their movement to be able to understand them in their totality. For the artist, the final meaning of the works lies in how it can enrich the experience and provoke changes: “I don’t want my work at Bilbao to be perceived just as one more aesthetical product. If it becomes a reference place for people with diverse ideas and my sculpture is the experience that allows them to find each other, then great! I would like this installation to be a public space, open, where anyone can come, especially young people. But, unless the work is formally innovative, nothing will change. It’s important that it is, formally innovative, so that it can transform perception, emotions and experience.”(4)


1. Richard Serra. Interview with R. Serra in Exhibition catalogue Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999, p. 212.

2. Richard Serra. Interview with R. Serra in Exhibition catalogue Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999. p. 210.

3. Richard Serra. Interview with R. Serra in Exhibition catalogue Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985–1999. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, March 27–October 17, 1999. p. 208.

4. Conversation with Hal Foster, October–November, 2004


Have you ever been inside a sculpture? If yes, describe your experience? How do you think you will feel when you walk inside Serra’s pieces? Why does the artist want us to walk inside and around his sculptures? How does it add to your experience?

Draw an open cone figure on the blackboard. Color one section of it: you will obtain a shape similar to a flower pot or to a lamp screen. How do you think you would feel inside a giant flower pot? If you were to walk, instead, inside a giant lamp shade, the walls would be tilted over you, how would you feel then?

Draw a torqued ellipse from two ellipses that are facing one another. What does this shape suggest to you? Pick adjectives to describe it. Why do you think the artist is interested in working with this shape? When you visit the museum and you walk through it, you will see how the shape tilts towards the inside, that is, towards you, and also towards the outside, getting away from you. How do you think you will feel inside it?

Lastly, draw a spiral on the blackboard: start with a dot and draw a curved line that turns around the dot, progressively getting away from it. Compare it with the previous shapes. How do you think you would feel inside a spiral?

When you visit the museum, ask your students to walk through the installation, outside and inside of it. After having them explore the work, ask them to write a few sentences describing their interaction experience with the sculptures: What thoughts and feelings did you experience while walking through the space? What aspect of the sculpture evoked those feelings? Ask your students to read their answers out loud. What similarities or differences do you find in your answers?

Once you have explored the room thoroughly, go up to the balcony on the second floor and observe the pieces from above. How does your perception vary when seeing them from above? What experience do you prefer? Discuss your preferences.

Look for adjectives that describe time. Comment on how the perception of time can vary depending on your own experience and how a moment which objectively can be very brief can seem very long. Have you ever felt this? And the opposite? Share your experiences. Torqued ellipses are shapes that did not exist previously in architecture or sculpture. What do you think made Serra invent such shapes? Why does he use such an innovative shape in his sculptures?

Discuss the title: The Matter of Time: What does it suggest to you? Why has the artist chosen this title? What other titles could be appropriate for this work?