Like a rhino grazing in the bushy savanna, Richard Serra’s concrete sculpture Shift snakes through the grassy fields of Southern Ontario without much in the way of human attention. Now, any opportunity for viewing this piece in its undisturbed habitat could become a dream: the Ontario Conservation Review Board has refused to protect Serra’s work under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Only three members of the public attended the hearing that led to the OCRB’s refusal, which casts doubt in the necessity of such a designation. Witnesses in favor of Shift’s historic designation included Heritage Ottawa President, Leslie Maitland and landscape architect Wendy Shearer. Richard Serra was not in attendance.
As reported by Shawn Micallef in The Toronto Star, the review board’s decision against Shift came down to a a little clause in the Heritage Act that requires historic properties to have value for the “community.” Due to Shift’s secluded setting, which pretty much excludes a steady stream of visitors, no community value of the site could be determined by the board. In their final statement, they wanted to know:
How does Shift “contribute to an understanding of “a community or culture” in the context of the Act? For example, what “community” holds Shift as significant for cultural heritage value or interest reasons?
Two years after Serra completed Shift, its then owner Roger Davidson, sold off his farmland, including the land art to Hickory Hills Investments Inc., its current owner. For almost forty years, then, the work has remained true to the artwork’s original design to show what Serra’s called “one’s relationship to the land”. But with the Ontario Conservation Review Board’s refusal to grant the site heritage status, not much stands in the way of alterations to the area surrounding the work.
In the US, the biggest proponents of land art preservation tend to be non-profit organizations like the Dia Art Foundation, which cares for many of the world’s barely-seen works in the American Southwest, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. Wrestling Shift out of the hands of private ownership could give this work a new, secure life, where it can roam undisturbed across the Canadian plain.