Internationally Renowned Artist’s Work – Monumental in Size – Lies Hidden since 1971
Originally Published in the King Weekly August 2003
In the winter of 1973, a pair of 10-year-old boys, one of them a descendant of James Whiting Crossley, (the Reeve of King Township in 1890), were trekking through the bushes adjacent the Crossley family farm in King City, Ontario.
Stephen Crossley and myself stumbled out from the bush into a very remote clearing and made an interesting discovery – a series of shifting concrete walls. Instantly, we were drawn to it. This initial interaction was comprised of running as fast as we could across the top of the walls and then leaping into the huge snowdrifts that had accumulated below. Once we got tired of that, questions began to pop into our minds. “What the heck is it?”
My friend Steve volunteered the first explanation. “It’s an irrigation system,” he said. “It helps direct the rain water into the low areas so that Mr. Cadden can farm the field”. My response was something similar. “It looks like the foundation of a building, only why didn’t they finish it? And why is it way out here? There’s no road or driveway or anything”.
Throughout my childhood and into my teens and 20’s I would continue to visit this placid clearing located way off the beaten path. I would make solitary visits, simply to sit on the walls and listen to the wind blow through the trees. It became a place of retreat for me. A place to gather my thoughts: to refocus, to regenerate.
In the late 1980’s, I sat in on one of my mother’s philosophy classes at York University, (Mom was doing her doctorate studies and she invited me along to a “philosophy of art” lecture). Various photos of peculiar works of art were being projected and individually discussed on the screen at the front of the class when one particular photo popped up. It was an aerial photo. The form of it seemed vaguely familiar, then realization set in. “What?!?!” I blurted out. “I know that thing”. My Mom had no idea what I was talking about, and of course now we had the attention of the class and the professor. “Mom”, I said. “We live half a mile from that”. She never knew. I never had any reason to tell her. I thought it was an abandoned building project.
I explained my “10 year-old” experiences of it with the class, (which got me a bit more attention than I had bargained for, because my experiences were exactly what the professor believed were the “intent” of the “work”). Later in the week I acted as a guide to help the students find it. The topic of the class was “Minimalist Sculpture”. The artist of note was an American internationally renowned artist by the name of Richard Serra, and the work in question…the one I jumped off into the snow drifts in 1973, was one of his sculptures entitled Shift, conceived of and built in King City, Ontario between the years 1970-72.
Richard Serra, 64, was born in San Francisco. Between 1957 and 1961 he studied at the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Barbara, earning a B.A. in English Literature. Since moving to New York in 1966, he has conceived of and built other large outdoor sculptures made of concrete and steel in other parts of the world including Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Amsterdam, London, New York City and Washington D.C.
“In the mid-1960s various artists found new and unusual ways to counteract the growing commercialization of the art world – what better way than to take the art (more or less) out of the gallery altogether. Most Environmental artists built their works in the great outdoors, and many even aligned themselves with the then-fledgling environmental movement. Their work incorporates spiritual and natural elements and is flavoured by potent anti-urban attitudes”.
Its title is as thought provoking as its physical manifestation
Conceivably, Shift has existed here long enough to be considered one of the defining characteristics of King City’s natural heritage, because Shift is a monument to the past, present and future of King City. Its title is as thought provoking as its physical manifestation. When you step into this clearing, you are immediately struck by the work – initially with confusion, then by the parallels it evokes, because out of the vagueness of it, you suddenly “get” it. To offer my own interpretation, Shift is an abstract form that reflects the Shifting from one paradigm to another: from an agricultural way of life toward the urbanized trends that now creep upon this Township’s borders. Our cities, especially our modern ones are like concrete outcrops protruding from the wilderness. An alien, lacking our specific brand of inculcation, would be no more confused by trekking through this field, than by strolling through downtown Toronto. Yet something that is so purely logical is lost on us, because Shift contradicts and conflicts with the “rules” of what constitutes an artwork – rules that have been so methodically ingrained in us since birth. Currently, this work is located within an Environmental Protection area. The existence of this artwork in our community, its meaning and intent, are of particular importance and interest at a time when the residents of King City, and of King Township, find themselves somewhat embattled and conflicted by seemingly irreconcilable ideologies. Monuments of any kind have been known to play an important role in influencing the thoughts and actions of people. Though it is an artwork of the most obscure kind, in the end Shift works to make one thoughtful, aware, and appreciative of the natural setting it occupies.
“Many Environment works were launched on a monumental scale, and required construction crews, heavy industrial equipment, and engineers to execute. This kind of Earth art evokes archaeological wonders of the ancient world like Stonehenge and Easter Island. While viewers could certainly visit some of the Earth art sites, it’s an interesting irony that most of them ended up displayed as photos in galleries.”
A cornerstone of the King City Community Plan is the principle of Land Form Conservation. By incorporating Shift into the planned expansion of King City’s trail system, and by allowing the artwork and its symbolism to gain greater local prominence, an interesting cultural enhancement to King’s current heritage could be fostered. Perhaps other artists, local and international, could be encouraged to add more artworks to these trail systems, making the whole of King Township a kind of outdoor “gallery”, thus placing a permanent focus on King City and King Township as an influential, and world renowned wellspring of Land Form Conservation planning practices, of heritage preservation, and of cultural and artistic advocacy. There are always alternatives – only limited to our imaginations – whereby development can be economically viable and sustainable without having to sacrifice our heritage, or the overall future vision. In the course of new development, what we are in fact doing is “legacy building”. In the case of Spring Hill, we are looking to expand upon a 150 year old development now known as King City, the name and vision of which were once championed by James Whiting Crossley during the late 1800’s. King City and King Township are home to a rich rural heritage, to an abundance of natural beauty, and to the work of an internationally renowned artist. It is now left to the imagination of our current generations to build upon and enhance this vision – to cultivate, nurture, and harvest of a heritage so rooted in richness.
Excerpts taken from the Art & Culture Network website: http://www.artandculture.com
Photos taken from Richard Serra/ Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, N. Y., 1986, p.30 & 98