The Importance of Things: Q+A with Sarah Sze
Sarah Sze is well known for her mesmerizing site-specific installations comprising hundreds of found and fabricated objects. In advance of representing the U.S. at next year's Venice Biennale, she has completed a major piece, Book of Parts, commissioned by the High Museum in Atlanta on the occasion of its "Fast Forward" exhibition, opening Oct. 13, a survey of 100 years of art from the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Sze's works are rich with subtle references. She always leaves personal touches throughout the installations, in this case her boarding pass for her flight to Atlanta, her museum visitor's pass and ephemera saved from other trips, like European sugar packets. The silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle is also tucked in among the shelves.
Here the artist talks about how her pieces take shape.
STEPHANIE CASH How does this installation relate to the exhibition or Atlanta specifically?
SARAH SZE Like the exhibition, the work is about trying to make sense of an encyclopedic amount of information. It's a reflection of how you make an exhibition of this type, where you take a century and decide, "These are the things that are important and these are the things that will be left out." As a viewer you have to go through the show and make decisions about where you're going to look. My piece also doesn't tell you what's important to look at. Your process of looking is one of discovery.
CASH Was there anything unique about your working process for this piece since it was made for the exhibition?
SZE I'm interested in painting, sculpture, photography, architecture—bleeding them together in a practice that's inextricable for me. I have different bodies of work. At the Asia Society I did a show ("Infinite Line," Dec. 2011–Mar. 2012) that was much more about line and negative space and about the tension between objects. It was much more about drawing for me.
This piece belongs to a series that's about systems, impossible systems of information, where you know that the information is more than you can actually encompass. It's also about the fragility of information. When I was asked to do something for the end of the show I thought it was an impossible order.
CASH Where does the title Book of Parts come from?
SZE It comes from research I did for my SFMOMA piece Things Fall Apart (2001). I got a Jeep Cherokee and knew I wanted to take it apart. You can get a book of parts for any car and it will tell you every single part and every screw. It breaks down the entire car. You can build a car from this book. So my work is like the open book of parts of a mind or a memory.
CASH Are there particular artists in the show you responded to?
SZE There's so much work in the show that I did study and that has greatly affected my work-like the Boccioni [Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913] and the Italian Futurist idea that you can create the impression of speed without actual movement.
CASH It looks as if you've grouped and organized things according to size or type or some other factor. Is there a method?
SZE My hope is that the work is constantly shifting, so you read it as one thing, and then it gets lost and you read it as something else, and then that gets lost, so it's never a set system. The work is expansive rather than conclusive, which is an interesting thing to have at the end of this show. It's a tall order to have a single work represent the culmination of a century.
CASH How does your work fit into the show's narrative?
SZE The difference in how you experience the works from the '20s to the '80s doesn't change that dramatically—things are on the wall or on pedestals. My piece is the only part of the show where you have an entirely immersive experience. How do you situate yourself in the middle of it? It gives the experience of being oriented and disoriented in space. The whole piece is a grid, but it's shifted and tilted.
CASH There are a lot of cast and fabricated objects—like bottles and take-out containers—more than found objects like the multiple salt containers or the can of Goya beans.
SZE I like to take found objects and see what can be done to make them more like sculpture, and then combine both forms. Where is that line? Like this blue bottle, it has a relationship to the Yves Klein painting, but by making it blue it becomes almost like a sculpture, but we also know it's just a bottle.
CASH How do you decide what objects to use?
SZE They're intimate choices, and formal and historical decisions. For each object I can tell you why it stayed in, why it's where it is. One thing that is uniform is that all the objects sit between things—growing or dying, static or mobile, personal or universal or generic, something painstakingly made by hand or that you can get off the shelf. You recognize these as flip-flops, then you read them as paper sculptures.
CASH How precarious are your works? Like is this twig really holding up the shelf?
SZE No, that's a cantilever. The stick is really decorative. It's an architectural idea, like neoclassical ornamentation, where a fake column would make you feel the weight of that building. This stick makes you feel like the work is more fragile, like this little tiny thing is holding it up. When you take out material you're less worried about it. All of these decisions are about making the work feel fragile and shifting.
CASH How long did it take to install Book of Parts?
SZE Ten days. If I'd had one day I would've made different decisions; it would be a different work.
CASH What happens to everything at the end of the show?
SZE Hopefully it will have a permanent home at the High.