Vulnerable Sculpture

Sculpture breaks free of the frames that confine paintings and drawings. Released into the wider world, sculptures may even inhabit the fourth dimension via movement in time, as mobiles do. Sarah Sze’s vulnerable works take the mirroring of life even further. Unpredictably, sporadically, they may tremble or flutter; the pieces are unstable, constantly changing, ephemeral. “I purposely build them so that they look as if they’re unable to support their own weight,” says Sze. “They apparently have the potential to collapse at any time. As we all do.”

The Art of Losing, at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, 2004.
Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

The sculpture and installations of Sze (pronounced ZEE), a Radcliffe Institute Fellow in 2005-06, may embrace living elements that grow into the surrounding space. Her materials include moss and plants, light, water, and wind. “You see things growing, and you see them deteriorating,” she says. “You get to experience something live—like improvised jazz. That’s one reason sports are so infatuating: they can’t be prechoreographed.”

Sze’s father is an architect, and she nearly majored in that subject at Yale, but instead graduated in studio art in 1991. She earned an M.F.A. in sculpture at New York’s School for Visual Arts in 1997. Architectural elements and questions (like the relation between structure and ornament) linger in her installations. But where classical architecture uses visual cues to lead the viewer’s eye through space (think Versailles), “In my work there’s a plethora of information, and not a lot of hierarchy in the way you see the work,” Sze explains. “From any viewpoint, you could make five different choices as to where your eye goes next.” Take, for example, her sculpture Table Top, which the Fogg Art Museum owns. It’s a collection of small items—cigarette lighter, photo slide, spool of thread, drug capsule, broken wine glasses, and so on—delicately assembled with wires and dried flowers into something resembling a house plant that is a hybrid of the natural and the man-made.

Proportioned to the Groove, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, 2005.
Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

Sze teaches at Columbia and has been a MacArthur Fellow since 2003. Her installations have appeared at the Venice Biennale and the Cartier Foundation in Paris, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and, currently, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan, where Corner Plot protrudes from the sidewalk until October 29. (At Radcliffe, she made and exhibited a replica of its interior.) Corner Plot reproduces the corner of an actual building that stands diagonally opposite the installation, at 735 Fifth Avenue. Looking through the work’s windows (it’s lighted within) reveals a complex interior scene of Sze’s imagination. “A corner is an interesting space, an in-between location,” she says. “Teetering in two places, dislocated. In this case, the building has either fallen into, or emerged from, the ground: it plays with gravity.”

Like all of Sze’s installations, Corner Plot “feels as if it happened on the site,” the artist says. “It’s very married to the architectural space; the two are intertwined. In order to do that, part of the work must be made on the site, or already be there. You don’t know if the lamp in the room is part of the piece or if it was already there. Raising the old question: where does art begin and end?”


Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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