Sarah Sze’s cosmic constellation: ‘It could be torn away in a...

Sarah Sze’s cosmic constellation: ‘It could be torn away in a...
Sarah Sze’s cosmic constellation: ‘It could be torn away in a...

THEne click and the picture on my truck jerks. When it is confirmed again, I look to an explosion that appears to have frozen in time. Glistening embers are impossible to hang in the air as images glide overhead: a glimpse of the blue sky, rainbow breaks, a knife scratching yellow chalk.

I am in London. Sarah Sze, who tries to give me an impression of her latest creation on her iPad, is at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, where she and her assistants are installing the installation, her first in over 20 years. She walks into the next room and guides the camera over a bright white circle of crushed salt on the floor, surrounded by tiny piles of crumpled aluminum foil and water bottles.

These are amazing and somewhat confusing visions, perhaps more about a shaky zoom connection. But with Sze (pronounced Zee) that is often the case. The American sculptor creates glasses that defy interpretation and often the force of gravity. She made planetariums out of overhead projectors and table fans. Installations made from sleeping bags, gravel and disco balls; filled the stairwell of a Japanese museum with a tornado-like sculpture that has swept up pieces of plastic, plants and measuring tapes.

Sze's new sculpture Tracing Fallen Sky in Paris.
Salt circle… Sze’s new sculpture Tracing Fallen Sky in Paris. Photo: Ed Alcock / The Guardian

Sze, speaking from 19 to a dozen, is a tornado of sorts itself, albeit very thoughtful. It’s hard to predict what objects she’ll pick up and what shape they’ll be in when she puts them down. “I’m interested in the idea of ​​sculpture as a tool to understand where we are in time – in the world, you know?” She says.

Sze’s new work on Cartier is, in a sense, a meditation on what life was like for millions of us in 2020: a world broken into fragments that we still want to piece together. Technically speaking, there are two parts under the title Night in Day: an illuminated, planet-like structure that hangs in a room (Sze has a weakness for planets); in the other a floor sculpture, over which a pendulum swings lazily (she also has a weakness for pendulums).

An intricate detail of Twice Twilight.
An intricate detail of Twice Twilight. Photo: Ed Alcock / The Guardian

As you walk around, you’ll see colorful projections of videos from the internet multiplying biological cells, card tricks, and a slowly growing garden: images that seem to speak of life in quarantine. The piece has been planned for years – Sze is slowly collecting ingredients – but came together when she was jailed in New York with her two children and husband.

She explains that the images she has put together reflect how we have increasingly accessed life through our jewel-colored screens due to the pandemic. Also, as at least for some of us time and space have merged into a meaningless blurring: zoom encounters with friends or colleagues in distant time zones, remote pub quizzes and school lessons, none of this is really real. “In our household,” she says, “there are Zoom meetings with China where someone tries to prepare dinner.” It all happens at once. Time and space rotate, blur. “

Back in March, Sze wanted to go to the airport to install another exhibition in Paris when the borders were abruptly sealed. For this new one, she had planned until a few weeks ago to remotely monitor the installation just in case. “I really didn’t know if I could come at all. It’s kind of exciting. “Aren’t US citizens still banned from entering the EU? She laughs. “They had to say that I was absolutely necessary to get this crazy thing up.”

Pictures in Refraction (West) 2019.
Pictures in Refraction (West) 2019. Foto: Genevieve Hanson / Sarah Sze

It turned out that lockdown was a constructive time. Sze set up an improvised studio in her basement and explored printmaking. She also worked on charity projects for the New York homeless and artists in difficulty, and was able to install another piece at LaGuardia Airport. Hundreds of photographs of the sky over New York are attached to an aluminum-steel grating that looks weightless but weighs five tons. “I was very lucky,” she says. “The work has not really stopped – only the logistics have changed.”

Still, Covid-19 was inevitable – not least because her husband is Siddhartha Mukherjee, the cancer specialist and author whose book The Emperor of All Diseases: A Biography of Cancer, published in 2010, won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. “You become closely associated with whoever is in your house and their work, don’t you? It was amazing to see – the urgency to find solutions and solve extremely difficult scientific questions. “

Often people think of Sze’s assemblages in architectural terms – even as a kind of anti-architecture in which humble objects are unlikely to float in space or form rigorous and esoteric configurations. People have compared them to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, both spontaneous and powerfully accurate, or Russian constructivist sculptures. Although they often resemble natural shapes such as clouds or waterfalls, they describe, in the words of the critic Laura Hoptman, “nothing that is, but rather illustrate how something behaves”.

Sze sees what she’s doing as a kind of scientific model or experiment – a means of surveying space using objects, many of which have been found. An installation may have been planned and carefully sketched for years, but by the time it gets to where it works, it doesn’t know exactly how to react. Often times, she arranges pieces of wire or tiny stones just a few hours before the show begins. “For me it’s about monumentality, about physicality, about materiality, but also about transience. It could be hurled away in a moment. “

'Sze thinks of what she does as a kind of science model' ... Timekeeper 2016 (Rose).
‘Sze thinks of what she does as a kind of science model’ … Timekeeper 2016 (Rose). Photo: Sarah Sze Studio

The way the pandemic has brought home the complexity and fragility of life, its vulnerable interconnectedness, makes Sze’s work relevant again. She frowns. “You do the work you do and you don’t always know where it came from. You are connected with time, but there are a lot of deep connections that you cannot even explain. “

Sze was born in Boston in 1969 and began studying architecture (her father is an architect), but switched to the fine arts and often shuttled back and forth between the two worlds without being tied to it. Her groundbreaking show took place in 1996 when she filled a tiny room in Soho with hundreds of tiny sculptures made from toilet paper sculpted with her own saliva. Arranged on metal shelves, they looked like bleached animal bones in an otherworldly natural history museum.

After years of hectic work – sometimes four or five installations per year, each meticulously site-specific – she received a MacArthur grant for “geniuses” in 2003. The big wide world met her a decade later when she represented the USA at the 2013 Venice Biennale and created sculptures that exploded from the sober, neoclassical American pavilion as if they could not be held back. “Anyone reading a list of items in their complex installation might think it was … what an unusual trip outside to pack,” noted the New York Times of paint cans, napkins, gaffer tape, espresso cups, and more.

Can she clearly remember them when they are finished? “I love doing shows in other countries that I’m leaving and then I never see it again,” she replies. “But when I see a work from a long time ago, it’s fascinating because I remember the decisions that were made, exactly the moment when I made them.”

What does your home look like? Is it all the drawers with paper clips sorted by size and jeans that are folded away in precise shades of blue? She laughs and reminds me that she and Siddhartha have children. “I think I used to be a lot more aesthetic. Now I’m just very practical. Like ‘Where do I put my keys?’ “

While it is unknown what will happen to the art world in the next six months, Sze has a lot on his plate. An installation at the Guggenheim in New York was due to take place this month, but has been postponed to 2023. This fall, she will be creating a 10-meter-wide permanent outdoor work for the Storm King Art Center in New York State. With the title Fallen Sky, it will reproduce the piece in Paris – a reflective steel circle, like an image of the earth, broken into fragments or drowned in rising water. She is increasingly concerned with how her work relates to the environment – another complex structure, vulnerable and beautiful. “If you could model the world so that people could see how fragile it is …” she says, letting the thought hang.

She and her technicians have worked from 8 a.m. to midnight for the past four days, desperate to get everything ready before Paris goes on curfew. “Everything is changing!” She says. Then the screen jerks again and she is gone.

• Sarah Szes Night Into Day is until March 7th at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.

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