Sarah Sze is a contemporary American sculptor and installation artist based in New York City and teaches visual art at Columbia University. Her work consists of using a mix of everyday objects—office supplies, cotton swabs, toilet paper, tape—and art mediums such as paint, prints, and video to create multimedia installations. She represented the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale, was a MacArthur Fellow in 2003, and designed an immersive permanent artwork for the Second Avenue Subway in New York City in 2017 (Art21, 2017).
Sze's work challenges the traditional norms of sculpture by creating fragile, impermanent works that look as if they are in the process of being built or dismantled (Enwezor, et al., 2016). The accumulation of objects combine and inhabit spaces, climb up walls, and colonize "off" spaces (storage rooms, bookshelves, ceilings) (Slyce, 1998). While comprised of "a million little pieces," (Scott, 2012) her work is vast in scale and scope.
Sze's work addresses the tension between chaos and control (Carlock, 2003) through themes that include living in the urban environment (Slyce, 1998), data proliferation (Norden, 2007), consumer society (Buchloh, B.H.D., 2016), and climate change (Volk, 2015).
I find Sze's delicate and ephemeral work powerful and grounding—both in form and concept. A deeper dive into her work has helped me identify aspects of my own practice for further consideration and development:
:: the pace at which it is realistic to develop my concepts and the actual work—while Sze's early work as an emerging artist received a lot of critical attention, her practice has developed methodically and consistently over decades to become the tour de force that is is today.
:: practice-led research (Gray, 2004) is an appropriate path of inquiry for installation art—Sze says that she has dozens of experiments ongoing in her studio at any given time which are constantly being used in installations, then recycled for further development back in the studio before re-emerging in other installations (Art21, 2016). This practice is extended on-site during the installations themselves, with an emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity (Art21, 2012).
:: the importance of meticulous design and making—even though Sze uses bits and pieces that she buys enmass from local office suppliers and dime stores, her installations attend to sculptural formalities such as form, line, mass, balance and structure (Carlock, 2003), and are handcrafted and assembled with great care. There is nothing sloppy or haphazard about her work.
:: pay careful attention, starting now, to how I document my work. Because installation art is temporary, the only record of its existence will be the photography and video that are made of it. Sze took documentation of her work seriously from the very beginning (Slyce, 1998), using it as a means to "further communicate its bodily effect on the viewer beyond the limited time and site of the installation" (p. 8).
:: the role of lighting and light in installation art—Sze makes interesting use of shadows in her work, playing with angle and intensity to distort line and pattern (Hunter, 2014).
:: focus on quality over quantity and build from there—not all of Sze's works are room-sized. She puts her models on exhibit and has done smaller installations, especially earlier in her career.
:: Sze's work is a solid contemporary contextual reference for my work. There are enough parallels—achieving mass and scale through accumulation (Slyce, 1998), site-specific response, use of marginal or atypical surfaces and spaces such as ceilings and corners, and the use of ephemeral materials to create delicate structures—for me to pay close attention to her approach and techniques, while enough difference in themes, motivations and materials to carve out a practice that is decidedly my own.
Art21 (2012) Improvisation: Sarah Sze. Available at: https://art21.org/watch/extended-play/sarah-sze-improvisation-short/ (Accessed: 14 October 2017).
Art21 (2016) How We See the World: Sarah Sze. Available at: https://art21.org/watch/extended-play/sarah-sze-how-we-see-the-world-short/ (Accessed: 14 October 2017).
Art21 (2017) Sarah Sze artist page. Available at: https://art21.org/artist/sarah-sze/ (Accessed: 14 October 2017).
Carlock, M. (2003) ‘Sarah Sze’s Organized Chaos’, Sculpture, November 2003, pp. 24-29.
Chiu, M. (2011) Sarah Sze: infinite line. New York: Asia Society Museum.
Enwezor, O., Buchloh, B.H.D., Hoptman, L.J. and Sze, S. (2016) Sarah Sze. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Gray, C. and Malins, J. (2004) Visualizing research: a guide to the research process in art and design. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
Hunter, B.H. (2014) 'Sarah Sze at the Philadelphia The Fabric Workshop and Museum', Sculpture, October 2014, 33 (8), pp. 75-76.
Norden, L. (2007) Sarah Sze. New York: Abrams.
Scott, A.K. (2012) 'A Million Little Pieces', New Yorker, 88(13), pp. 60-66.
Slyce, J. (1998) ‘The Imagined Communities of Sarah Sze’ in Sarah Sze exhibition catalog. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Volk, G. (2015) 'Sarah Sze', Art in America, 103(11), pp. 134-135.