It’s an art nerd’s favorite fun fact: paintings that hang in the Guggenheim aren’t actually level with the museum’s canted walls and floor. In truth, they’re mounted at odd angles that merely give gallery-goers the appearance of squareness.
A similar irony pervades Sarah Sze’s new solo show at the museum, “Timelapse.” Everywhere in the artist’s installations are various instruments of measurement that we rely on for order in an otherwise orderless world: rulers, clocks, metronomes. But in Sze’s hands, they serve an opposite purpose, reminding us only of their own futility.
“Measuring tools” is just one of the many classes of material in the work of Sze, who brings an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to art, erecting elaborate sculptures from the most forgettable of materials: wires and rocks and lamps and clamps. Hers is an art of .
In walking through the show, I found myself unconsciously cataloging all these little quotidian objects the artist has employed. Entire pages of my notebook are filled with passages like this: “Mirrors, salt, toothpicks, iPhone chargers, over-the-counter pills.”
The impulse came from a desire to break down Sze’s ultra-complicated installations and identify, in their constituent parts, hidden layers of symbolic value. Why did she choose that empty bottle of water? What does that jar of mayonnaise mean?
In what ways is this pile of junk art?
Sze, 54, is among the most successful artists of her generation. A graduate of Yale University, then New York’s School of Visual Arts, she entered the art world a young star. Her work was included in the 1999 Carnegie International and the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Three years later, she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In 2013 she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. (Sze declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Because of these bona fides, and because of her penchant for transforming odd spaces into kaleidoscopic spectacles, the artist’s solo show at the Guggenheim arrived with much anticipation. It also arrived late. The exhibition was supposed to open in October of 2020, but was postponed because of the pandemic. Sze made good use of the extra time, though, periodically visiting the museum for research while it was closed.
I expected Sze’s artwork to overtake the Guggenheim the way artists like Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, and James Turrell have in the past. But “Timelapse” is a more modest presentation. It’s largely contained to the museum’s top floor, and even there only some of the bays are really filled. Instead, most of the artist’s accretions appear to grow out from the Guggenheim’s walls, like barnacles clinging to a boat. The relationship feels parasitic. (A retrospective dedicated to the Venezuelan artist Gego takes up the rest of the museum.)
Some of Sze’s sculptures, such as the towering scaffold of sticks and photos called Slice (2023), take up a great deal of space, though it’s often a presence that’s illusory. In works like these, everything is hollow and tenuous, literally held together by glue and string. Part of you wants to blow on them just to see if they’ll topple.
Sze didn’t arrive at the museum with these artworks preassembled. Rather, she put them together onsite ahead of the opening—an iterative process that took weeks.
“Many of the decisions were made during the installation,” said the Guggenheim’s Kyung An, who curated the show. It was during that stage, she added, that a “lot of the elements came alive.”
Sze’s sculptures are broken up by several large-scale paintings, all of which include collaged elements. In Times Zero (2023), for instance, a sunset scene is all but obscured by a whorl of photographs affixed to its surface, while even more printed scraps spill out onto the floor. At the center of the swirling composition is a low-res image of a fire pit, alternately inviting and threatening—a source of warmth, perhaps, or a portal to hell.
Another painting, called Last Impression (2023), does something similar, but its own attendant photos are suspended before it on string. Sze has cut holes in some of these pictures, creating little apertures through which the painting is constantly being cropped and reframed as one walks by. “As the exhibition came together, during installation, we realized that each bay functions almost as an image-making system of its own,” An explained.
Tying these systems—and indeed the whole show—together is River of Images (2023), a series of roving digital pictures and videos that are projected onto artworks, walls, gallery-goers, and even the Guggenheim’s façade. Some, like photos of hands and birds, you’ll recognize from elsewhere in the show; others move by too quickly to register.
This, An said, is “our current reality. We’re just trying to put these things together, all these different, disparate fragmented forms. Sarah talks a lot about how, in our digital world, there’s always a sense of longing that is left behind.”
The show concludes in a darkened gallery at the end of the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp, where Sze’s work finally takes over to satisfaction. Presented there is Timekeeper (2016), a sprawling, multisensory installation of flashing lights, stuttering gadgets, and other sundries—the aforementioned mayonnaise among them. “Apple, carabiner, Pellegrino, tin foil, egg,” reads my notebook page from this stage of the walkthrough.
Pictures hang, in printed-out form, from just about every surface, while projectors throw others around the room. Most have to do with the very act of image-making and its history. There’s Harold Edgerton’s Milk-Drop Coronet Splash (1936), an early example of photography’s ability to capture imperceptible movement, and a shot of a cheetah mid-stride, which evokes Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion (1878). (Muybridge’s famed footage, a precursor to motion picture technology, appears throughout the show as well.)
Of all Sze’s works in the show, Timekeeper is the most thrilling. Not coincidentally, it is also the “junkiest” of the bunch. It’s the moment when the artist’s motley objects transcend their own miscellany and coalesce to overwhelm the viewer with their own excess.
Like Sze’s best works, Timekeeper captures something profound, or profoundly sad, about it what it feels like to be alive in these the head-spinning days of late capitalism, inundated by images, ads, and commercial solutions that leave us feeling full, but not fulfilled. Standing before it is like that moment—we’ve all had it—when you come-to on the sixth page of a dissociative Amazon search, a full shopping cart the only evidence of how you got there, and suddenly become hyperaware of how little time you have left on Earth.
“Sarah Sze: Timelapse” is on view now through September 10, 2023 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.