May 2008, Richard Serra Monumenta Grand Palais

 Faced with the vastness of the ocean, who hasn't at some point felt very, very small? As he planned his installation for the yearly Monumenta sculpture exhibition at Paris' Grand Palais, Richard Serra felt similarly overwhelmed -- "submerged," as he put it -- in the venue's enormous, glass-encased space. The artist's word choice is evocative. It is easy to imagine that the five mammoth steel slabs which make up Serra's final project, Promenade, have floated down through equally vast depths, lodging in the Grand Palais as if on the ocean floor.

 Slightly askew and sunk into the ground, they appear to stand upright only by means of their own weight. Most city-dwellers grow immune to the imposing size of the skyscrapers which surround them. Despite their own large scale, Serra's public installations sometimes 'disappear' in a similar fashion -- viewers pass by works like the 55-foot tall Fulcrum at London's Liverpool Station with less conscious recognition of the works' sheer massiveness than one would expect. Promenade might not be so impressive if it was outdoors. Yet housed in the Grand Palais -- originally constructed for the Paris Exhibition of 1900 -- these steel plates remind viewers of their own tremendous smallness in a whole new way. Entering the Grand Palais is to undergo a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland transformation: visitors seem to shrink immediately, dwarfed by the building's soaring steel frame and gigantic open plan. But at 56 feet high and 5 1/2 inches thick the vertical blades of Promenade are indifferent to scale, cutting easily through the airy space encapsulated by the palace's transparent shell. The context of Grand Palais makes it impossible to ignore Promenade's own gargantuan dimensions. But as one looks up at the steel plates, and through the glass ceiling above, the palace itself seems to be "submerged": just when we thought we had reached some comprehension of all this space, Serra points to the even greater expanse which lies just beyond -- the sky.

Sarah Neel Smith

Sarah Neel Smith is a writer in Paris.

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