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Serra’s Stones

My daughter and i were on a small ferryboat in Reykjavík Harbor, Iceland, making our way toward Videy Island to see what is probably the leastknown and most unusual art installation by one of the world’s most famous sculptors: Richard Serra’s Afangar ("Standing Stones"), named for a celebrated Icelandic poem. Throughout Serra’s career, his work has challenged definitions of sculpture. And this sitespecific piece, covering the northwest part of an island less than a square mile in size, remains his largest landscape project. It was finished in 1990. I can’t imagine what took me so long.

Hearing last August that Serra was to have a 40-year retrospective devoted to his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—now on view through September—I asked my daughter to go to Iceland with me to see the piece before the exhibition opened. Neither of us had ever been there, and we were struck immediately by the strangeness of the land—the austere, devastating beauty of one of the youngest countries (geologically speaking) in the world. This Sunday morning was cloudy, windy, and cool, and the small ferryboat bobbed through the choppy harbor on the fiveminute trip to the island. We were the only passengers. From the boat, we could see spectacular rock formations along the shore: tall, stepped groupings of grayblack basalt. The boat docked in front of a small church, whose parish house is also a café for visitors in the summer months. To my surprise, the first thing we saw upon setting out to find Afangar was a complex installation by the Danish conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson, very near the church. A large domelike structure made of timber, iron, and glass, named Blind Pavilion (for the hidden point at the center of its prismatic black panes), it turns out to have been created as a Danish contribution for the 2003 Venice Biennale. Here, it appeared strangely incongruous.

We had the map our hotel in Reykjavík had supplied, which was a good thing, as no one was in sight to ask for directions. Videy Island consists of two parts: Heimaey, the main area (last inhabited in the 1950’s) and Vesturey, the site of Afangar, across an isthmus that gives onto a low, undulating plateau only 16 feet above the sea. Walking over the isthmus and up a grade, we spotted the first stone column, which, from a distance away, appeared to be about the size of a human being. We rose toward it on a narrow gravel path, then cut across the grass for a closer look. It loomed 13 feet high. Then we saw the next pair of columns in the distance. Suddenly, the landscape and the horizon seemed to expand. Sea and sky became an overwhelming presence.

Bera Nordal, director of the National Gallery of Iceland and the Reykjavík Sculpture Union, invited Serra to create a piece for Iceland in 1988. The commission was to be either for the museum or for a public space in the city. But when Serra traveled to Iceland, he was struck by the landscape’s "stark, immense vastness," and asked if he could produce a sitespecific installation instead. Learning that Videy Island was a national preserve, he proposed it as the site. Work began in 1989.

Afangar consists of nine pairs of basalt columns, igneous rock formed by pressure, the heating and cooling of Iceland’s lava flows, and the shifting of tectonic plates. (The stones were quarried and trimmed on the mainland near Reykjavík.) At times, when close together, the columns seem like couples. All together, they form a loose ring on the island’s periphery. Although the topography of Videy varies, Serra chose to make the stones—they’re all either nine or 13 feet tall—rise to a uniform elevation; their placement seems both random and calculated: like pushpins on a map, they mark out a rhythmic sequence.

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