sarah sze talk at harvard

4 March 2006, 2:35 pm

Sculptor Sarah Sze presented slides of some of her work to a capacity crowd at Harvard’s Carpenter Center on February 23rd.

I’m always intrigued and a little apprehensive when artists discuss their work and their creative processes. Often the creator’s perspective can deepen my appreciation of an artwork. But sometimes explaining a piece too much de-mystifies it, and reduces my enjoyment even if it increases my understanding of it.

Sarah Sze seems clearly aware of this tension, and I found her presentation notable as much for which she did not say as for what she did.

She opened by discussing an untitled piece she exhibited at SoHo Annual in 1996, which consisted of arrangements of single squares of toilet tissue.

Sarah Sze, Untitled work, 1996

She described this piece as encapsulating several key aspects of her work:

  • She uses unconventional materials which explore “how an object accrues value.” She seeks to use materials without aesthetic value — “not trash, because trash has romantic value” — but impersonal, mass-produced, and fundamentally utilitarian objects.
  • Her work frequently presents opportunities for “discovery” — this piece was positioned in an out-of-the-way corner and was designed to be easily missable, but to reward the viewer who found it with an opportunity to be drawn into an unanticipated experience.
  • She blurs the “edge of artwork.” In “Untitled,” are the aluminum shelves part of the sculpture, or do they bear the relationship to it that a frame does to a painting?
  • She frequently applies formal rules to the execution of a given piece. In “Untitled,” one of the rules was to work with a single square of toilet tissue “until [she] got bored,” and then move on to the next. One of the rules of “Fire Escape” (2002, pictured below) is intrinsically obvious: its “kitty-cat scaled” architecture consists of just three modular components.
  • She explores the temporal dimension in her work. In “Untitled” this is largely implicit: the piece is constructed of material that is specifically designed to decompose rapidly. In many of her larger installation pieces, this concern is made more explicit: moving through or around the sculpture is analagous to moving through the lifecycle of some fantastic organism — or ecosystem — that sprouts, flowers, and (eventually) withers.
  • Her work is playful and more than a little subversive. She didn’t mention (but didn’t need to) that her choice of materials will tweak staid sensibilities, but she acknowledged that some her installations have an almost parasitic relationship with their sites. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” started, she said, by “inseminating [architect] Jean Nouvel’s lamp” and said she wanted her sculpture to “tickle” the very serious building.

Fire Escape (2002)

Most of what she did say about her work seems fairly obvious to the attentive viewer, so her lack of discussion of other aspects of her work was interesting by virtue of its absence:

  • Most of it is transient. (I’m aware of only one permanent installation.) I don’t think I was projecting the mild displeasure in her voice when she said that the Boston MFA owned the installation it commisioned from her and could re-exhibit it at any time; I had the distinct impression that she would prefer it not be re-assembled. I suspect that she might consider a re-installed work not to be the sculpture, but to be only a copy: a derivative and lesser work.
  • Its own inaccessibility is central. I think one of the things that makes Sze’s work so compelling is that it tantailizes the viewer. It offers some opportunities for discovery, but suggests the presence of additional opportunities that are not offered. What is available and in view is fascinating, but there’s almost always more that’s concealed, either because you can’t get close to it (as in “Things Fall Apart”) or because it’s covered up (as in “Powers of Ten”). Or, (by extension) because you simply can’t reach it before it ceases to exist.
  • It relies on obscurity (really another aspect of its inacessibility). Sze said that she wanted to create the impression the exact position of the smallest component was terribly important to the piece (shades of “chaos theory,” perhaps). What she didn’t say (but again, didn’t need to) was that it’s equally important that the reason for the positioning of each element not present itself to the viewer. Since she’d mentioned some of the rules underlying “Unititled” (1996) and “Fire Escape,” I thought that asking what other sorts of rules applied to various pieces was fair game during the Q&A portion of the talk. However, this was apparently an attempt on my part to peer behind the proverbial curtain. She answered the question exactly as if I’d asked what the pieces “meant,” with careful and (I think) rehearsed deflection about how they arose from personal narratves that she felt were uninteresting in artistic terms.

Last August, I scoured the web and collected links to a handful of photos of Sarah Sze’s sculptures on this site.

Since then, there’s been a massive proliferation of images of Sze’s work available online. Sarah Sze’s official site at the Marianne Boesky Gallery has relaunched. Several flickr members have posted photos of Sarah Sze’s sulptures at flickr. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a page devoted to Sarah Sze’s MFA installation.


On a more personal note, waiting in the queue for admission was an amazing experience. For about a week prior, flu/cold-related congestion had severely impaired my hearing (when I attended the Undertow Orchestra performance, I could really only hear it through one ear.)

The day before Sarah Sze’s talk, I’d at last seen a doctor, and undergone a moderately unpleasant procedure with miraculous results. I’ve grown accustomed to sounds in public spaces merging into an unintelligible babble. It takes a great deal of concentration to try to pull language out of the murk, and the effort often leaves me irritiable. I can be quite short-tempered in crowded restaurants and similar settings if I don’t watch myself. I’ve also had (very slight) tinnitus for years. Since both of these symptoms are classic early warning signs of hearing loss, I’ve assumed that I’d permanently lost some upper-register hearing.

(I’ve been pretty careful about loud sound over the past several years, but once upon a time I saw Hüsker Dü with no ear protection, and I regularly took similarly stupid and short-sighted risks in those days.)

But to my shock and enormous delight, after seeing the good doctor I found that I was hearing not only better than before I got sick, but better than I had in years — probably since before I moved to Boston. I actually enjoyed waiting in the lobby outside the auditorium specifically because I could either let the voices around me merge into babble, or I could focus on any of the conversations going on near me. I didn’t hear anything worth eavesdropping on, but the fact that I had the option was a gift the preciousness of which is beyond my ability to express.

One comment on “sarah sze talk at harvard”

  1. Flasshe

    I am always heartened to hear stories like your hearing one, where one thinks that one (bad) thing is going on, yet it turns out to be a good thing. That is so cool, and I’m glad to hear it. I have been worried about my own hearing in recent years, especially since MP3s don’t bother me as much as they used to, and I also have problems focusing on a particular conversation in a miasma of voices. But your story gives me hope. I am tempted to ask what the procedure you underwent entailed, but understand if you don’t want to blurgh about it.

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