BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Sarah Sze

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

Imagine you're on the telephone, biro resting lightly on message pad. It's the most natural thing in the world to trace out marks and patterns as your brain's motor functions tick over. Improvisational and unconscious, there is something fundamental about doodling. Organic swirls become regular patterns before a slight variation sprouts a new shape to send the image in a different direction. Now imagine that, instead of pen and paper, the medium of your doodling is a collection of household odds and ends. Arrange these into regiments that quickly grow into new patterns, unforeseen and unplanned. Finally, imagine doing this and nothing else for a fortnight, and you'll begin to picture the elaborate installations of Sarah Sze.

Untitled (St James', London) (1998) inhabits one half of the ICA's Upper Gallery, sprawling out of a cupboard, glue-gunning across the floor, up the walls, along the ceiling, over the track lights, and even out of a window. Although so full of stuff, the gallery is also somewhat empty - huge swathes of wall are left blank, save for pencilled grids studded with nails, perhaps left over from the previous exhibition. (This is by no means clear.)

Sze precedes her installations with a visit to a cheap household goods store. The items are the kind of everyday domestic junk that we all have cluttering up our busy urban lives and our tiny urban spaces. They are things - ice trays, disposable razors, straws, slides, cups, pills, M&Ms, chopsticks, chewing gum, nails, plugs, pegs, towels, tea bags, coloured light bulbs, film canisters, spanners, CDs, coins, batteries, matchsticks, pasta, lamps, cables, fans, ribbons, fuses, paint rollers, cans, video cassettes, two goldfish, a pair of compasses, and a whole lot more - that we don't really think about, and they are arranged in not-really-thought-about patterns. The effect is... well, imagine a pointillist Jessica Stockholder and you're getting close.

By the doorway lies the tell-tale glue-gun, still plugged in. Threads of glue hang from the ceiling, blown by the fans. There are witticisms too, such as the matches surrounding the smoke detector, or the spaghetti crucifix, or the thermometer with a string of red wool rising vertically from its mercury scale. Lie on one of the benches for a better view, and you will see that the ceiling is flecked with colour, like a sparse circuit board. As the blood rushes to your head, it's easy to imagine yourself hanging in the sky a mile above; the question of scale never goes away.

This is odd because, on the whole, everything is at its 'natural' scale: the chopsticks are chopstick-sized, the pencils are pencil-sized and the goldfish are goldfish-sized. Yet everything is small. The warping of scale is due not to the objects themselves, but their arrangement: the conglomerations become fantastic cityscapes, but the interaction with the features of the architecture highlights the physical smallness of the objects.

The ICA's galleries, of course, are not straightforward white cubes, having been constructed within a rather grand architectural setting (the Queen is a neighbour). Hence there are leafy follies aplenty to be found around the ceilings. These regal decorations have never had to contend with such an intrusion - eclectic patterns of plastic forks, sponges and pencils mimic its patterns and ruin its intended gravitas. The effect is a playfulness bordering on mockery.

But what are we to make of all this? Sze's drawings perhaps give us an insight into the origins of her work, but unfortunately there are none on display and the accompanying catalogue provides only a single reproduction. The drawings, produced in sessions on a continuous roll of paper, depict sprawling scenes: cutaway views into flats, garages, offices, stairwells, playgrounds, fishing trips, hot tubs. Obsessive but not precious, these vignettes tumble into each other, forming a fragmented snapshot of urban lives and spaces. Here we see that there is something essentially inner-city about this young Brooklyner's work. Her subject is the city, or rather the people in the city, and the things they get up to. Domestic rubbish, through its functionality, tells us plenty about the kind of lives we lead. And where else but the city are you forced to live in such proximity to this material culture, the detritus of everyday life? In the city, bedrooms function as living rooms and offices and studios and kitchens. Maybe this mundane fact explains why Sze's work is so compelling: in a cramped city flat, every possible item of domestic junk is within ten feet of your sleeping head.