Few spaces embody the frenetic pace of 21st century travel as forcefully as the international departures lounge at Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport. At the locus of Canada’s busiest hub, amidst the crowds, lines, gate changes, and luggage, the elemental presence of Titled Spheres emerges from the tile floor, as if out of geological time. Stepping inside the curved steel walls, the terminal din is modulated into a soft, intimate soundscape. Depending on where you stand, you might hear a fellow traveller’s whisper in your ear from across the hall. It is a moment of escape without escapism, where the life of the airport is distilled into a sort of steel womb. I feel more present than ever. In any case, it’s my favourite part of flying.

Like millions of Toronto travellers, the monumental piece is my most frequent encounter with the work of acclaimed American artist Richard Serra. And when news of his death was announced last week, the tranquillity of those curved steel walls immediately came to my mind. For Serra, who died at the age of 85 on March 26, Tilted Spheres embodies a global portfolio of large-scale public work that, according to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), “radicalized and extended the definition of sculpture.”

Tilted Spheres at Pearson International Airport. Like many of Serra's work, the structure relies on its carefully calibrated curves for stability.

Tilted Spheres at Pearson International Airport. Like many of Serra’s work, the structure relies on its carefully calibrated curves for stability. PHOTO: Ian Muttoo via Flickr Commons.

It’s signature Richard Serra. There are no screws, bolts, supports, or weld marks. Instead, the curved, blackened steel rises from out of the floor with a monolithic and almost otherworldly grace. In fact, the terminal lounge — opened in 2004 — was specifically designed to accomodate the concave sculpture, which spans over 12 metres in length and stakes a central place at the intuitive heart of the building’s circulation. But what does it all mean? While the scale and sanctity of Serra’s forms invites comparisons to temples and places of worship, the spirituality of it all is visceral, personal, and open to interpretation. As Serra put it, his work is best experienced by “walking and looking.”

Tilted Spheres: A Tribute to Richard Serra

PHOTO: Ken Mist via Flickr Commons.

For us passengers, it’s an invitation to explore. As a child, I’d run between one set of walls and prime my ears to hear the echo of my brother’s voice from the other side. As an adult, I often travel alone, and listen to whatever comes. Depending on the circumstances, the experience is fun, spiritual, social, or one of deep interiority. And man, the stuff you can hear. For University of Salford Professor of Acoustic Engineering Trevor Cox, Titled Spheres is “like having a giant sound-effects unit to play with,” he writes. “Get the right place, and the focused reflections from the arcs follow repetitive patterns creating Gatling gun echoes.”

In any case, it’s difficult not to be drawn in. The sheer scale and presence and sound of it all is enough to make me quicken my stride as I approach. And the next time I fly, I will think of Richard Serra.

Lead image by Ian Muttoo via Flickr Commons.

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