It’s a common promise made in many press releases and artist statements: rather than delivering an artwork with hermetic, built-in meaning and context, the art, by being loose in some way — usually loosely constructed — will provide its viewer with materials and tools with which to construct meaning. The viewer will thus be set free to bring her own associations, interpretation, and background into the viewing experience and actually participate in the meaning making along with the artist. For better or worse, most exhibitions emphatically fail at delivering this promise; the viewer remains on the outside, receiving the meaning from the artist in the usual one-way manner.
Sarah Sze’s sprawling installation on the ground floor of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery manages a rare feat and actually keeps the promise, with aplomb. The gallery’s foyer, visible from the street through floor-to-ceiling windows, contains a proliferation of blue painter’s tape and plastic sheeting that obstructs the main space from view, so much so that some visitors have asked if the show is open yet. However, what start out looking like signs of a show in progress reveal themselves to be the building blocks of the installation. The vast main room is a contradiction in terms: a dense jungle that’s barely there. Like a stork taking a nap balancing on one leg, Sze’s work seems precariously perched, but is in fact solidly sure of itself. (Sze’s meticulous kind of precariousness, or looseness, which in this case took a month to set into place, is widely imitated, rarely with success.)
Walking around the room, what at first glance seems to be a homogeneous environment slowly begins to reveal itself as discrete sculptures and assemblages. Most are made from the usual Sze materials: color photographs, held up by armatures of thin metal rods and shredded to within an inch of their lives (or at least their edges), hanging from itty bitty pieces of tape; real and fake rocks sitting on the floor as weights or witnesses; cables, wires, chains, and threads looping, twirling, and swooping. Paint is a major sculptural material here, making appearances both as object and adhesive. In the ingenious “White Paint Hanging (Fragment Series)” (2015) it is something of both: a freeze-frame waterfall is made of many drips of white paint that appear to have been left to dry on the floor and then peeled off in one swift motion and hung from the ceiling.
This is how Sze keeps her promise from the press release. The work here feels at once expansive and effortless, precise and open, creating an active, participatory, make-your-own-meaning viewing experience. Thanks to the erratic spacing between pieces, there’s no particular trajectory one feels compelled to take through the room. Even walking back through it after returning from the back room, a viewer never sets foot in the same show twice.
The exhibition includes two tabletop works, a medium-size format for Sze, who can go up to a whole pavilion or down to a square foot. “Seconds Clipped”(2015) is the more intimate of the two, evoking a research station in a remote place with a minimum of ingredients: some branches, a rock cut in half, a fan, and video projection. Its success lies in how little it tries to convince us of its fiction.
The other tabletop work, “Measuring Stick” (2015), stands solo in a room on the second floor. The lights are off, so the only source of illumination is the sculpture itself. A video projection of a cheetah running in slow-mo out of its frame plays alongside another projection linked up to NASA’s servers, showing a counter tallying the ever-growing distance between the Voyager 1 space shuttle and Earth. A constellation of boxy wire frames, torn photographs, everyday objects, and a large, deliciously fake rock sculpture all join to create the feeling of a slow-motion explosion that fuels Sze’z best work. They’re the same materials as downstairs, but if there the viewer arrives to find the aftermath of the explosion, here a bang is still holding tight to its own core, and we seem to be watching it in the process of going caboom.
One work in the show that stands apart, both in terms of form and content, is “Empty Room Sound” (2015). It’s a text-heavy video and sound work based on interviews Sze conducted with a blind man who coaches other blind people on how to physically get around and better perceive space. Interestingly, the work is housed inside the gallery’s private parts: a side door, the kind an art handler usually emerges from, has been partially opened, and the screen is set among the gallery’s archives, boxes marked as financial records, and other artists’ work. The visitor must crane her neck or edge her body into the space in order to see it. There seem to be two narratives unfolding here: the video revolves around unknown physical space and objects, but its installation hints at the concealed spaces, objects, and other unknowns of the art world. Why is Sze inside the gallery’s walls? Her work isn’t usually interested in the practical workings of the art gallery —is this piece simply a non sequitur or does it pointing to her next spatial frontier?
Let’s engage in some meaning making and consider two potential clues found upstairs: “Chalk Lines” (2015), a minimalist work that uses a chalk reel to mark the studs in the walls of the gallery, once again makes us think about the insides of the space we are standing in. Deeper into the second floor stands the ceramic “Gray Matter” (2015), which is almost literally an exploded cube. (I say “almost” because, like a punk getting ready for a Ramones concert, it’s a highly constructed chaos we’re dealing with here.) It’s tempting to make the formalistic association between the physical cube and the art world’s white cube.
One of Sze’s most common moves is to place objects in a sequence that pretends the wall, usually made of glass, is not there. She did it with her Venice Biennale pavilion in 2013, and she did it last time she was included in a group show at Bonakdar. Perhaps instead of going through the walls, her next move will be to head right into them.
Sarah Sze continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 W 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 17.