Sarah Sze: the artist creating complex immersive worlds from everyday objects

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The maxim that “a whole is greater than the sum of its parts” feels perfectly apt for the wild, entropic installations of the US artist Sarah Sze. The “whole” in question elevates its requisite parts by finding magic in the mundane, taking everyday objects and weaving them into a commentary on the human need to make sense of a haywire world. Sze emerged on the American art scene in the early 2000s to quick success, graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts before being awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2003 and going on to represent the US at the Venice Biennale a decade later.

Sze’s whirring ecologies are currently on view in her solo show Timelapse, which occupies both the interior spaces and the façade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Another site-specific intervention will open later this month in a long-abandoned waiting room above London’s Peckham Rye train station. Co-commissioned by the UK arts organisation Artangel, The Old Waiting Room will take over a vaulted space above the station’s main ticket office, a room that has been boarded up for the past 50 years.

The Art Newspaper: The Guggenheim is so architecturally unique, with its circular walls and spiral ramp running up its central atrium. Could you talk about the different concerns you had about activating the space and how that impacted your choices?

Sarah Sze: Within the Guggenheim, every single decision is about every inch of that museum, because every inch of it changes. The floors are at different angles. In each bay, every single measurement is different. It’s one of the most radical buildings I think ever built. Also, you have this massive void behind you that changes your entire sense of space. So even if you take a piece of the architecture, you really can’t get the feeling of what it’s like to be in that space.

I was thinking of each bay [off the central walkway] as being a kind of image maker, and they each make images in different ways. So, a painting will make a video, will make a sculpture; or a sculpture will make a video, will make a painting; and they merge and they become one, and they separate and they become three in front of your eyes in each bay in different ways.

It’s been so rewarding and interesting to go see how people enter—there are people sitting on the floor, there are kids gathered in front of the Timekeepers. There’s been nothing broken after two openings and ten days [of being open to the public, and] of 15,000 people going there on the weekends. The behaviour of the audience in the space is totally different. The head of security came up to me and said: “I’ve worked here for 20 years, and I’ve never seen this kind of engagement with artwork before.” People usually move [up the museum’s ramp] at a certain rate, and they have it measured out for crowds, [but that rate has been] slowed down exponentially in the show.

Do you have a sketching practice? How do you start the initial moves to assemble a piece?

I have a sketching process that is actually more based on my architectural training, which is more abstract—loose lines that sort of show you the cadence of the overall composition of how it works, the choreography of where you might move quickly, move slowly. For Timelapse, I wanted the transitions to be very choreographed. Once you realise what’s happening to your art in the space, that blurring of art into life, architecture into an art piece, light into darkness, it sort of happens naturally through the movement of your body and time. So that’s all drawn out in sketches.

Sze’s 2020 exhibition Night into Day at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, was a vast site-specific installation that transformed Jean Nouvel’s glass building Photo © Luc Boegly

Speaking of your architectural background—in terms of how you’re talking about gesture and light—how will your work interact with the “forgotten” waiting room at Peckham Rye?

It’s such a crazy, amazing, really exciting space. My knowledge of it is that it was built in 1865 and hasn’t been opened to the public since 1962. I was told that there was this expectation when the Crystal Palace was built—and this is anecdotal—that since there would be all of these people who wanted to go there, this waiting room would be really necessary, but it was a miscalculation on the need. Then it went through many different stages. It was a billiards room for a while. And then they just didn’t have use for it. So it was literally boarded up—some of it cement-blocked up—just sitting there, kind of hidden in plain sight. So you have trains going by on either side, but you have this time capsule in the middle of contemporary life.

I don’t want to give away too many things that I’m going to do, but I’m definitely into this idea of a waiting room or waiting for a train. That tension has always been interesting to me. I’m interested in playing into the longing that this would have been a grand place, and it’s now pretty decrepit, but in this beautiful way—the sense of grandeur, lost or regained, but reinvented. This kind of magical experience is very much your feeling when you go up there.

I’m interested in work feeling like it’s still alive. It has a sense of live performance, live jazz, live dance, any of those things. And when you come to it, you feel like something might happen in the moment, that if you stayed another hour, it would be a different piece. It feels like you go into this space that is forgotten, but then you find this entirely live feeling of a live arrival in the space, a new arrival, a new way of using that space.

I was thinking about the station as a place, the waiting room as a place. I was talking to the people I’m working with to install [the work] and brainstorming; there are many things that I don’t know which way we’ll go on, but I like this idea of a place where you anticipate. LaGuardia Airport [in New York] was a really interesting commission for me because in an airport, whether you’re arriving or you’re departing, you’re in this moment of great anticipation of what is to come. The waiting room too is this idea of waiting for something—you’re in this moment of hold.

I think in my pieces I’ve always been interested in trying to find a place where you’re right at this teetering point between coming or going, between growing or dying, between entropy and growth, and they’re sort of at this tipping point—you’re on this tightrope of going one way or the other.

What is your sourcing process for all of these pieces, since there are so many moving parts?

One of the things that I’m interested in is the idea of how an image generates or self-generates, and how we generate images now. It’s different than ever before because they’re being traded, they’re being changed, we’re taking them ourselves. Authorship is questionable, ownership is questionable. The image is in competition with, if not replacing, the object in terms of ways that we express ourselves and communicate through non-living things.

I think that in the work itself and in any show, I’m interested in showing the viewer that the work is generating itself before your eyes. And that also has to do with seeing the tools that are used. The sculpture itself is the tool. In the Artangel commission, all of the video cameras are in the sculpture. So the sculpture is both the sculpture and it’s the tool. And I was thinking even today, how can we make it a painting too?

My work sources itself to some degree, but the sourcing is the world. Most of the imagery, for example, is from my iPhone. But 10% is not, and that’s an important 10% because I’m interested in the idea that if you want to buy a picture of a volcano, you can buy it just the way you can buy a paintbrush; it’s yours and you own it, and that’s something that’s relatively new.

The trading of images, the owning of images, the changing of images, has actually been around for a long time. But now it’s being utilised every day in a way it has never been before. So, like images, you can source objects anywhere in a way that is really particular, I think, to the here and now.

Installation view of Sze’s current exhibition Timelapse at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The show weaves its way throughout the entire museum, including the exterior walls and the public sphere beyond

Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Biography

Born: 1969 Boston

Lives: New York

Education: 1991 Yale University, New Haven; 1997 School of Visual Arts, New York

Key Shows: 1997 White Columns, New York; 1999 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2002 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 2003 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 2013 55th Venice Biennale; 2020 Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

Represented by: Gagosian, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Victoria Miro

Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 10 September; Sarah Sze: The Old Waiting Room, Peckham Rye Station, London, 19 May-16 September

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