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number 3

Surf Report

Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses

by Ed Hewitt

Take off almost inside the cylinder – immediately the lip darkens above you, pitched out almost five feet, double overhead. Light appears up high, and the lip recedes as the wall, close against your shoulder, flattens out and tapers away. Several feet ahead, the wall darkens again, first up high. It accelerates madly and you are as close to barreled as you’ll ever be. A few seconds down the line, the lip backs off and slopes away and you coast around the wall, maybe take a look back into the rolling center of the moving ellipse.

It’s a sweet ride, for a 12-foot tall, two-inch-thick piece of twisted steel. Richard Serra’s installation at Dia Center for the Arts features three of these steel barrels, and was called the best of 1998 by ArtForum). That doesn’t begin to cover it though, it’s the most awesome standing wave made of wrought-iron steel in history.

For a surfer, the analogue is immediate. as you “paddle into” any one of the cylinders, it comes alive, churning, racing down the line, threatening to close down in front of you as memory and anticipation merge. The experience isn’t a static approximation of a wave; the steel actually seems to flow and pitch, charge and back away. The visual effect is astounding, letting you grok the immense mass of a giant wave in utter safety, as an aesthetic experience, rather than as a surging wall of water. Even when you go up and touch it, it moves, changes, undulates, never the same, always in flux, like every wave you’ve ever ridden.

The physical experience of the piece is thrilling, but the simple conceit that gives us these forms will appeal to even the most pure soul surfer. Serra (who is well-known for other massive installations) has positioned two identical ellipses in different orientations, one hovering several feet above the other, and traced the walls that connect their circumferences in steel. Even the name of the installation will resonate for surfers: Torqued Ellipses.

The 12-foot Torqued Ellipse II, described above, is a section-y, speedy, dark-hued tube. The 13-foot-plus Torqued Ellipse I is lighter in color, more angular and severe in size and mood, a behemoth and a cakewalk at once, like some descriptions of Waimea. All steely drop, then watch it peel.

The third piece, Double Torqued Ellipse, charcoal gray and huge, is two distinct cylinders, one completely inside the other. Menacing, duplicitous, it is an obscene, unrideable, but fully imaginable nightmare wave, the ultimate closeout, a horrific exaggeration of “in the pocket.”

You can get inside these waves, the ultimate open-eyed duck-dive. Each piece has a slot you can walk through to see the walls from the inside – a deep, transporting glimpse of the forces that shape the wave faces we ride.

Surfing, more than most pursuits, is a series of transitions, of unrepeatable moments and revelations, and this art achieves the same effect. Serra is well aware of what he has done; his discussions of the piece sound something like a surfer talking story.

One critic said he “felt literally seasick.” The guy’s obviously never been tubed.

Another flat spell? Stuck in the city? Try dropping into a 12-foot wave made of Cor-Ten steel.

Ed Hewitt writes a weekly travel column and surfs mostly weekdays; visit his surf conditions page at

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