Guest blog writer Emily L. Newman holds a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas A&M University – Commerce. Often exploring the intersections between popular culture and art, her research focuses on the way contemporary artists have addressed female body image.
Known for her innovative sculptures of impressive scale, Sarah Sze utilizes paper, string, and various types of discarded or repurposed objects in her art. Recently the subject of a major exhibition “Infinite Line” at the Asia Society in New York City, Sze will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Born in Boston in 1969, Sze received her B.A. from Yale University and her M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Among the many awards she has received, Sze was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005.
One of the major strengths of Sze’s work is her ability to defy expectations about the artistic process, often by breaking the rules. Not content with frames and pedestals, her works climb up and down the walls and jut out into the viewer’s space. Materiality is a defining characteristic of her work, as she uses found objects, trash, and temporary objects like painter’s tape.
In her show at the Asia Society, Sze’s large, mixed-media sculptures were paired with a selection of drawings and more intimate works on paper. At first glance, the differences between the two groups of works were jarring. The sculptures featured Sze’s customary use of found objects as well as site-specific details like the application of tape, paint, and writing directly on the museum walls and floors. Among the construction materials and objects, Sze included personal items such as credit cards with her name and plane tickets, which specifically connected the viewer to the artist.
Sze follows in the tradition of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois, who, through their use of unconventional materials, challenged the art world while challenging identity. Sze incorporates fragments of objects specific to her and her inner circle, but are instantly relatable as symbols of modern identity. Credit cards, airline information, receipts, and discarded scraps of paper all refer to the mundane events of everyday life. Yet, they also refer to the information age, and the large number of people and organizations that have access to personal accounts. Creating modern portraits, Sze encourages the viewer to reflect on the tiny pieces of paper that begin to stand in for important moments and life events.
In addition to her sculptural pieces, her investigation of others’ identities in her drawings is especially poignant. Here, she innovatively transforms personal life events like a pregnancy, a career highlight, and a wedding into architectural elements. Stacking individual memories on top of one another, she creates a biographical tower of her subject’s important moments in graphite. By including these small, specific details throughout her manipulation of space, Sze pulls back from her larger sculptures to focus on the details that define a person’s history.
While the specific, detailed objects often refer to transactions or transportation, the individual artworks themselves require thoughtful investigation and movement to see the intricacies that compose the drawing or sculpture. The viewer must negotiate the terrain of the work, which often begins to resemble a journey. Getting down to look at details on the floor, peering through windows and around walls, and online casino moving in close to read some tiny text, the viewer must investigate the details of the works themselves. It is only then that the work slowly reveals itself.
But whose journey is the viewer experiencing? Is Sze creating a journey for the viewer? Or is it her journey the viewer is on? Does it even matter? With her sculptures, Sze creates an experience that will differ for every viewer-participant. What is remarkable about Sze’s work is that while they may be wedded to their location and installation, Sze creates an experience of not just viewing the work, but also of moving and engaging the work in a very specific way. The works become intricate worlds filled with lines and structures that push the viewer to move in and around the space.
Still Life with Landscape created for the High Line in New York in 2011 (and on display until June 2012) creates habit for a different consumer: birds and insects. The large construction resembles an architectural drawing realized in three dimensions, with various perches, mirrors, and green spaces integrated into the project. Sze even incorporated different types of food into the work, encouraging the birds’ engagement with the piece. Her purpose for creating the piece was to create a space that worked with the park, an abandoned railway track converted to green space. In this video, Sze explains, “I wanted the piece to really be like a site of experimentation, a place where something can happen or not. But the most essential thing really being that you would be reminded that there was the presence of these animals – birds, butterflies, bees – all over the park.” Sze is a conscientious artist who considers not just the environment where her works will be installed but also the way that they can be interacted with. Her selection for the Venice Biennale positions her as one of the best artists in the United States today, with good reason.