in Features | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Just So

Sarah Sze

in Features | 09 SEP 99

When you're moving out of an apartment and all the heavy items - sofas, television sets and books - have gone, there are always objects left behind that you have to carry away in plastic bags. And then, when you're finally done and can't wait to leave, you realise that there is still a lot of stuff left. These are the things you never knew you owned. Things that have nothing in common but the fact that they're still there: a lamp that works but always falls over, an uninteresting pot plant that has been in the bathroom for years, some pegs and those matches you could never find when you needed them. Dull things, but exactly the type of objects found in the delicate art works of Sarah Sze.

The suggestion of an empty apartment may imply that Sze's work is sparse, but the 1998 installation Untitled (Media Lab) at the Casino Luxembourg was messy and dense. She packs corners, alcoves and niches with colourful things, creating strange patterns and structures out of the most mundane objects. The Luxembourg installation comprised the additional ingredient of diminutive video projections depicting human figures moving back and forth, suggesting that the tiny 'laboratory' was inhabited. The first time I saw one of Sze's pieces, I thought of it as a Jessica Stockholder installation for Lilliputians.

Most humans are involved in involuntary activities, bodily as well as verbal. When the tics become too marked, you may be considered a little disturbed; when they dominate you're seen as a pathological case. Sze's works have been compared to the marks that most of us trace while talking on the phone. If someone were to continue, letting the drawing spread beyond the paper, across the table and over the floor and walls, then there might be cause for concern. Only certain deranged people - and possibly children - are allowed to lose control and let their scribbles extend beyond the confines of the message pad. Sze's strategy has something in common with such a loss of control: the details may be meticulously planned and arranged, but the outer limits of the design cannot be demarcated. The rhizomatic fabric may branch out in all directions, defying the borders of architecture and socially-defined space.

What our quotidian doodlings share with certain manic activities of the mentally ill is a lack of clear intellectual or artistic intention - a blind automatism. However, creations of this kind occasionally display great aesthetic qualities, and often this is only realised posthumously. Take the legendary Swedish fin-de-siècle lunatic Carl Fredrik Hill. His endless drawings over his father's mathematical manuscripts were once perceived as delirious scrawls, devoid of all meaning, but today they are collected as works of genius. While this says much about the aesthetic limitations of the times, more interesting perhaps is its demonstration of the ability to discover artistic qualities in artefacts, arrangements, or situations where nothing artistic was intended. Almost anything - as even Clement Greenberg would admit - can be seen as art; it's all a question of perspective.

I've often admired a certain bag lady's arrangements on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. What she stages on a number of trolleys is the tragic material manifestation of her entire life, but it is also a meticulously ordered cosmos of its own. Everything appears packaged to a strict system and displayed in accordance with a mysterious yet rigorous principle. Her belongings are exhibited on the pavement in a fashion reminiscent of certain eccentric collections: one can guess at a logic behind the choice and positioning of the items, but nobody except the curator comprehends the system. It's the collector's personal desires and obsessions alone that define the rules of the game. (In the collection of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, there is a secret cabinet behind a mirror, which contains the following objects: a death mask of King Karl XII, a list of people on whom the Czar himself practiced dental surgery, a lock of his Highness' hair and certain sensational body parts once belonging to Bourgeois, the distinguished Russian circus giant.)

Sarah Sze's installations may have little to do with the belongings of bag ladies or the collections of royal eccentrics, but they seems to grow out of a form of compulsion rather than rational deliberation. This is not to imply that Sze isn't conscious of what she's doing: on the contrary, it's all firmly within her grip. The compulsive drive behind the installations isn't authentic in the sense that the artist is its slave; rather, the obsession is treated as a ready-made. Her installations could perhaps be said to relate to neurotic compulsion in the same way Lichtenstein's Pop brushstroke relates to the Expressionist brushstroke.

Compulsive behaviour patterns begin in the everyday: some of us can't begin to concentrate unless the books on the table are in perfect order and all the pencils are lined up. Small arrangements - five tiny white tablets in a row, or a carefully ordered group of match boxes - are simply a starting point. From these humble beginnings develop large-scale installations such as Second Means of Egress (1998), shown at last year's Berlin Biennale. This impressive matchstick structure seemed to climb towards the light - outgrowing the spacious exhibition hall and disappearing through an open window in the ceiling - and emanated a sense of something partly organic, partly mechanical. The resulting 'tree' gently swayed in the light breeze created by a congregation of electric fans. A meticulously crafted matchstick tower may sound a rather pedantic, or even manic, endeavour, but the ultimate effect was not one of obsessive automatism, but of great openness - this micro-mechanical construction created an airy sense of freedom. It made me think of Paul Klee's Twittering Machine (1922), and suggested that some of Sze's works could be viewed as a kind of three-dimensional drawing.

Boys like cars and big machines, girls prefer tiny things that can be collected and displayed - is it that simple? After passing through any number of massive installations by male artists at this year's Venice Biennale and then encountering Sze's fabrications growing upwards and transcending the architecture, one is certainly tempted to draw that conclusion. However, like Jason Rhoades (captain of the boys' club), Sze amasses huge amounts of mass-produced goods, direct from the shops. But although everybody recognises the items Sze uses, even their particular brands, the moment an object is seen as a component part of a work, it is automatically stripped of those layers of meaning that don't contribute to the overall aesthetic. Mass-produced society, in all its aspects, enters her world, and although it would appear that she's far removed from any sense of traditionalism, the overriding aesthetic reduces the components to their formal qualities. Sze's installations can comprise virtually any kind of mass-produced commodity, but nothing breaks down the aesthetic framework that is established when you see that piece as a whole - the stuff ultimately becomes little more than colour, form and texture.