Sarah Sze, Proportioned to the Groove, 2005, as Installed In Artists In Depth at the Museum of Contemporary Art, ChIcago, 2008. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund.
This article was published in December 2008 in Chicago Artists’ News, now defunct. It was part of a series on collecting the ephemeral and immaterial.
Sarah Sze is a creator of complex and often contradictory ecosystems, and like ecosystems, her installations are sometimes ephemeral. Thousands of everyday objects, ranging from the miniscule to the large, are carefully and obsessively organized in spectacular configurations punctuated by empty space and connected by various mechanisms, lending her work its often imposing scale and architectural character. Sze’s work is composed of heterogeneous elements — household items, vegetation, and even water flowing through channels — which, once assembled, create fantastic worlds shot through with childlike wonder and scientific fascination.
Some of Sze’s preferred materials, for example, plastic bottles, bottle caps, forks, and buttons, are arranged in small microcosms of activity alongside sprouting vegetation and water sprinklers, attesting not only to the artist’s ecological concerns, but also to humanity’s apparently insurmountable attachment to consumer products and pollutants. Though Sze’s installations may at first appear as hodgepodges of everyday materials, the elements of her work are minutely arranged, making use of color coordination and patterning to evoke abstract imagery from a distance, and extraordinary animation upon closer inspection.
The unique quality of Sze’s work derives not only from her ability to juxtapose all these disparate elements; her splendid installations, at once spatially prodigious and delicate, are also ingenious feats of engineering. To install all these items, held together by wires that balance myriad miniature worlds, is an enormous undertaking — as is their de-installation and re-installation.
Sarah Sze, “Tilting Blue,” 2006, Malmo Konstall, Malmo, Sweden
How do museums collect Sze ‘s work, and what exactly is being collected when the pieces rely more on the ability of the artist to create a relationship between banal items than on the items themselves? And how do museums, after purchasing an installation, reinstall such a piece? Elizabeth Smith, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and curator of Sze’s 1999 MCA installation as well as the current show in which Sze is featured, “Artists in Depth: Works from the MCA Collection,” tells me that the documentation for these types of installations is crucial to the ability to reinstall at a future date. Curators at the MCA, with the help of Sze’s assistant, worked with photographs and written instructions to install the piece now on display. Storing the work is easy: since the pieces are small, they just need to be collected and labeled properly, and organized in a way that can facilitate future groupings.
If all the components of this installation are so commonplace, what exactly is the museum getting when it purchases such a piece — and can’t these items just be replaced by others of the same sort? This is the curatorial challenge with which Smith and other curators of conceptually driven, site-specific installations have to grapple. Smith remarks that “purchase includes not just the object(s) that are presented but also an understanding about the parameters of the installation (much like with the work of Dan Flavin or Sol LeWitt, to name a couple of other precursors to more conceptual installation works where following the artist’s instructions on how to recreate/install the work is as important as the object itself).”
Curators are now the caretakers not only of objects, but also of concepts and ideas. The work of Sarah Sze, at once complex and elegant, represents a perfect synthesis of both concept and object to create an intriguing intellectual experience.