Sarah Sze: ‘Timelapse’ at the Guggenheim Museum


Born in Boston, Sarah Sze has been living and working in New York for a couple of decades. Graduating in art from Yale with highest honors in 1991, Sze has been the recipient of close attention and critical support from the start. Culture runs in her family; her father, from a distinguished family in Shanghai, was an architect who worked in America. Her art, composed of scores of small, differing elements–often objects in their own right–are presented so that they receive individual attention, even as these elements also merge into a considered whole;  her audience shifts its gaze from part to entirety–both the single element and the overall design are equally important. “Timelapse,” Sze’s current show at the Guggenheim, takes her penchant for amassing scores of elements to the extreme; the museum’s top floor, where her work is installed, is filled with heaps of things: small images (photos from magazines or newspapers), plants, a ladder or two, structures made of thin, brown, wooden sticks or equally thin, silver rods.

Sze’s work, firmly aware of late modernism, can be also a bit difficult in its refusal to make any concession to form. Each of the bays on the floor presents one or two works, whose description can be described as “piles of disparate things.” This tendency was evident in the pieces Sze made early on, but in “Timelapse” the process has been carried to an extreme.  It is assumed that the style amounts to a refusal of art historical traditions, in favor of the visual complexities we deal with now, on television and the Internet, where many, many advertisements not only compete with but, indeed, increasingly influence art. This has been happening since Pop art. The visual jumble we are surrounded by seems to be Sze’s inspiration, even if the mass confusion we experience proves hard to keep cohesive as art.

With the establishment of modernism as  the major art language for several generations, it has become, now, a tradition artists might feel necessary to allenge. And even though our experience of Sze’s work is entirely art-oriented, which means we see ir as advanced sculpture, the artist takes the chance that her glorious disorganization will result in clutter.  We often find it in imagery today, even if some of it has returned to figuration. Contemporary realism evades the modernist outlook, established at the start of the last century. At this point, more than a few artists would regard modernist imagery as moribund. Also, in some cases, visuals now are regularly generated by electronics or other high technologies. Often, artists stay away from an excessively structured organization, seeing it as leaning too heavily on the past.

Sze’s current work is emblematic of our preference today for a total freedom of method, which would reflect the diversity of periods and cultures we currently employ in our esthetic. One may embrace or avoid the situation, but methods of chance and happenstance, along with very broad cultural references, have been tools of creative work since the Sixties. This means that we are following a state of entropy, something demonstrated by physics as a fact, and by culture as an attitude. Likely, the change results from the recognition that older art no longer represents actual circumstances.

But what if current methodologies do away with differences between private and public meaning? Our eclecticism, seemingly a considerable freedom, can be constraining. If we accept the idea n that we can jump from one historical inference to another, without referencing its origins, or if we accept any image as the possible determinant of an art statement, creative effort becomes a catch-all for non-historical awareness. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially when an articulated resistance to form, at first a progressive art act, may, at this point, be exhausted.

To some extent, the rigidity of an entrenched modernism has been made permanent by art programs in American universities, where the imagination has been severely politicized, but perhaps in a superficial manner At art schools here, politics not only occur in a social sense, but also affect our formal decisions. The style of one’s art is read as a political statement–even though it is hard to assign formal advances a political meaning. Yet it can happen; Russian modernism remains identified with revolutionary fervor. But it seems increasingly problematic to insist that institutions such as schools and museums communicate politics as much as art.. Social awareness inevitably accompanies image-making, but it is not the same as image-making. When social concerns take over, often intellectual rigidity results.

Academic and art institutions used to inform us about the past; now they are dedicated to describing the present. This can be done by advancing form. By moving away from cohesiveness, Sze may be attempting to focus on the imagination–its inherently scattered intelligence. But then the work of art becomes secondary. Sze denies form’s role–not a minor decision.It is up to her audience to decide whether the artist has gained in originality. In Sze’s case, the debate about artistic independence and a random structure is genuine; her piles become assertions of self, as well as refusals to conform to form.

Like many artists today, Sze belongs to a generation whose career has been strongly shaped by academic institutions–she has the inevitable MFA degree and teaches art at Columbia University. An academic approach to art has been taking place for some time. Is it possible for institutions to help out artists who are reaching for an intelligence that might be at odds with the school’s traditions? All over now, universities are awarding art degrees; more and more, we see doctoral programs in fine art. While the point is somewhat tangential to the discussion of Sze’s art, it is an important one. Can we transform an academic bureaucracy into a site where avant-garde creativity feels fully comfortable? The question  is particularly important in America, where the MFA programs are legion.

In American art schools, emphasis has shifted teaching skills to discussion of  political issues; one’s “social “practice” is now dominant. Maybe the loss of structure has resulted as a problem. Artists’ use of disassociated imagery has become so familiar as to feel cliched. We can ask the question, At what point does Sze’s myriad materials and loss of cohesion become an incoherent ntdisp[ay? Sze’s choice is conscious, and her deliberate evasion of structure is a personal decision, albeit one we recognize from recent history: experimental art rejected traditional structure a long time ago. In one bay of the show, an airy architectural work, built with thin sticks, surrounds a large sphere, covered with small, rectangular panels that catch the light. Behind this piece, which, like the other small installations, lacks a specific title and is described only as belonging to the overall project, is a video. Projected onto the wall is an image that is blue above and green in its lower half. The image is hard to read as the wooden structure and sphere are set before it.

These elements demonstrate Sze’s ongoing dialogue with many fields of visual interest. They articulate an elaborate dysfunction; we recall that the term “lapse” occurs in the title. The word opposes time’s assumed continuity.

These intellectual concepts t shape the show. But the visuals Sze uses result in very loose connections, and she can be criticized for her heaps of things, which never approximate form.. They are not necessarily advanced experiments in  cultural freedom. To repeat: Sze’s approach has precedents; new art has been working with confusion for a long time, SoSze’s presentation does not entirely evade the past.

We have had so much freedom for so long in fine art, our current creativity may have become a travesty of imaginative digression. The twists and turns of Sze’s materials, along with their overt lack of purpose, requires synthesis to understand. This may be hard; the elements are so disparate as to defy bringing them together. Yet Sze’s goal is to find unity in unruly disorganization.

In another bay (all the bays for Sze’s art on the top floor), Sze has placed a painting of ever larger concentric, pale blue circles, filled with a colorful litter of forms. The circles and randomly hued shapes are backed by black. Beneath this painting is a near copy, with whiter circular lines, placed without a frame on the ramp beneath the work it mimics. The closeness between the two paintings complicates relations between both. Like much of Sz e’s art,  this  piece both randomizes and copies all manner of phenomena. Sze’s decisions pushes disassociation as far as she can.

So the art remains ephemeral rather than organized. Sze’s bits and pieces of things stay unorganized. They are equivalent to the massive amounts of information we face each day. For the images to cohere, the viewer must take time to see an overall picture. Identifying the part with the whole is central to this body of work.

In another image, Sze’s fondness for aimless abstract structure is illustrated by the casual ties between many, many things–too many to name. But they include images projected onto screens set on the floor; plants,with large leaves: a pillow’ small, airy open structures built with thin, silver-colored rods, etc. Massive confusion  occurs on a less than massive scale. It feels like Sze is criticizing reason. Mabe “Timelapse” is eschewing metaphor for an embodiment of the imagination, its unconnected ties.

But the imagination is hard to parse. Sze’s efforts refuse visual hrierarchies–categories of thought remain outside her art; therefore, improvisation holds sway. Seeing Sze’s art comes close to the experience of seeing things on the street; no sense is to be found. If we see scattered objects in art, we need to organize the materials. Doing so demands time. Sze’s sculptures require extended study, so her art  encourages a reading of them as embodiments of time.

In another installation, perhaps made more effective by the smaller number of objects present (this is a relative comparison), something like an open fence, with square openings formed by lengths of thin wire, fronts the viewer. What is placed here? Three ladders–a red one with two steps,a taller black one, and then an even taller one made of unpainted wood–are set together on the left of the image.

Just in front of the trees is a potted plant, whose large green fronds lend an organicism to otherwise mostly industrial materials. Behind the open barrier of Sze’s  fence is an ascending display of random images, small and rectangular in size, whose wire-grid support broadens as it rises. Just above this display is an abstract image projected onto a black plane. Other miscellaneous objects lie at the bottom of the fence.The evasion of reason is striking, but Sze’s arbitrary assemblages can be difficult to read  Her deliberate confusions result in art lacking structure. Problems of meaning and intention ensure.

Usually, the artist intends to bridge the distance between the viewer and the object. So the object needs to evidence reason–at least to some extent. Now, though, we live in an age of theory,.Sze’s creativity resists convention, but it won’t work if historical precedent is rejected entirely.

An abstract reading of Sze’s random constructions can be used to criticize the show. How can we bring into order sod  dispersed a distribution of materials? No longer enamored of organization, we offer intellectual arguments to justify incoherence as self-sufficient. Bur theoretical arguments are usually generalized, and visual art is most often specific. Sze’’s  sculptures, which stretch across the floor in utter freedom, demand awareness of purpose, as well as consideration of particularity.

Process art has made its goal the conjunction of improvised actions whose outcome cannot be determined. When the materials used to make contemporary work reject convention, the artist is denying the past. Now we are very wary of earlier work, often criticizing it for its aristocratic origins/. We prefer semantic chaos even in writing..This may well be the continuation of a romantic outlook–a view that emphasizes the clutter of feeling over the rigidities of structure.

At what point does a stylistic decision become outmoded? Sze is very intelligent, someone comfortable with New York’s experimental bearings. Boundaries are gone, But that makes critical appreciation difficult; we stumble on the number and variousness of visuals presented. Sze’s work is filled with a chaotic visual noise, and yet it is likely she hopes for a clarifying account of the show. Maybe we should see “Timelapse” as mediating the conscious view of the artist and the unconscious view of the viewer, who has no presuppositions. Accident and intention merge in Sze’s presentation. Intelligence and thought are needed to understand them.

Ofre, when we think of entropy, we find the subject melancholic. Disorganization is followed by the loss of optimism. If Sze is trying to illustrate the breakdown of cohesion,her imagery illustrates the problem, even caricaturing it. Often, work of this nature is defended by calling it avant-garde. But we no longer know what the term “avant-garde” means. Almost nothing confuses or offendsin art now. Indeed, there is a readymade audience for almost anything visual. The writer’s job is to make sense of inimage patterns, but in Sze’s work, comprehending all absence of rational motive demands the imposition of a unifying concept.

If New York had the equivalent of a Kunsthalle–a public space not supported private money, but more likely by government support– perhaps Sze’s show would be better seen for what it is: an engaging preoccupation with myriad objects intended to reflect the complexity of experience. For decades now, artists have committed themselves to undermining  order. Conscious control is to be eschewed. Sze’s work illustrates this point. Still, her chaos needs to be seen as supporting a unified view.. We cannot  presume the loss of cohesion is inevitable in art–or always a stylistic advance.

A balance is required between the usage of the past, which is, for many artists, moribund, and experimental theories, now forming a past in their own right. For more than a century, we have challenged convention. Likely, Sze doesn’t think consciously about the issue. Yet “Timelapese” brings the question up.  Much art today is caught between an art history that occurred a long time ago and one being devised now. Sze, who is determined to improvise without rules, challenges us to articulate an architecture that would transform chance into real meaning. We must do our best to respond meaningfully to her creative advances, however arbitrary they might be. But her formal contradictions, which make the most of haphazard relations, are not easily solved.

Texto en español