The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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OCT 2010 Issue
Art In Conversation

SARAH SZE with Phong Bui

After having completed her current installations at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (September 16 – October 23, 2010), the artist Sarah Sze dropped by Art International Radio to talk to Rail Publisher Phong Bui about her life and work.


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): Among the literature I’ve read about your work, I thought Jeffrey Kastner’s long essay, “Sarah Sze: Tipping the Scales,” published in the May/July 1999 issue of Art/Text, was the most insightful one.  In his imaginative effort, he talks about your work through subcategories; for instance, high and low, open and closed, in and out, big and small. The way in which you operate your sense of scale, it reminds me of a beautiful Vietnamese proverb that my grandmother once told me when I was a kid: “If you live in a long tube, be thin. If you live in a barrel, be round.” [Laughter.] We generally know that scale refers to over-all size, and proportion refers to relative size. Could you describe where your unique sense of scale comes from? Or how did it gradually evolve?

Sarah Sze: The important thing about scale for me is that it’s always shifting, sliding; it’s not static. And that our efforts to determine scale and to constantly locate ourselves in space also reflect our efforts to locate our scale in relation to time and relevance—efforts to scale things in relation to their importance, value, and meaning.
 In the example of how Jeffery organized his categories in his essay, this effort itself—to make sense of information, to categorize, subcategorize, and create meaning and understanding—this effort and in the end the often seeming futility of it is an idea central to the work in this new show. Take the piece, “The Uncountables (Encyclopedia)”: it’s in some ways a visual encyclopedia and about the futility of an encyclopedia as an all-inclusive record as well as the inevitability of it becoming outdated before ever being completed. “360 (Portable Planetarium)” is kind of a sculpture masquerading as a makeshift, slip-shot personal planetarium, and about the attempt and impossibility of imagining the cosmos. “Landscape for the Urban Dweller (Horizon Line)” muses on the difficult task of capturing the scale of landscape and in particular on the difficult task of how to frame the horizon. Each one of these efforts becomes about an imponderability of scale.

Rail: You did mention in the past, on numerable occasions, that growing up with your father’s architectural models and drawings scattered around the house inspired you to make things with your hands, and subsequently you gained an acute, receptive sense of responding to spatial surroundings.

Sze: It’s funny you bring up the models. Another important idea for me, especially with this show, was to think about the idea of what a model is.  And this goes back to what you’re talking about with scale. A while ago, I had this interesting discussion with Arthur Danto, in which he said to me, “You know, your work is less like architectural models and is actually more like scientific models.  And the reason why is because an architectural model is made to model something larger. In other words, it’s a stand in; it’s information to be translated into something larger.  But a scientific model is about behavior.  It’s a model that shows the way that something behaves. In this show, every location that you go to demonstrates behavior differently.  Each piece acts like a site of evidence of some behavior—some effort to make meaning, find knowledge, or create intimacy through the physical world. Upon discovering these sites time plays a role—you feel as if something has just happened, is happening, or will happen, so hopefully as a result you’re left oscillating somewhere between the present moment and an ancient and a futuristic world. It’s a model that is constantly shifting and changing, such that a site feels like a live event.

"360 (Portable Planetarium)," 2010, mixed media, wood, paper, string, jeans, rocks, 162 x 136 x 185 inches; 411.5 x 345.4 x 469.9 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Rail: But, first you were trained in painting as an undergraduate at Yale.

Sze: I studied both painting and architecture at Yale from 1987 to ’91, but focused on painting, which then was very formal and divided between Joseph Albers’s color theory and traditional figuration. It was the school of Bill Bailey and Andrew Forge, but my mentors were Susanna Jacobson and Andrew Raftery.

Rail: And Ron Jones, who you spoke of as someone who was helpful to your growth.

Sze: Yes, Ron was in sculpture. The wonderful thing about Ron is that any critique he gave, whether the work was good or not, wasn’t just about the art in front of us. For him, it was always an opportunity for an art history lesson. He has this great wealth of information. All of his assignments were completely conceptual.  Actually, the work I did for his class is very much related to what I do now. It all had to do with the idea of site-specificity, and working the edge between art and life. For example, I did this piece that was hidden in many places and corners in the art building like a virus. Another one was outdoors, on the lawn.

Rail: You mean the one that resembles a flag.

Sze: Yes, actually it was many flags. It filled the main lawn in front of the library. It was a grid of hundreds of American flags on toothpicks, the kind you can get for cocktails or hors d’ouves for the 4th of July. They were stuck into the ground en mass in a huge grid over the field so it looked like a minimalist haze of red and blue color floating in the green of the grass. It was during the Gulf war. I got my roommates to go out with me in the middle of the night and we laboriously laid it out row after row. We didn’t get permission. The site is a central point in the campus so it was quite dramatic in the morning. Over time the flags got stepped on, rained on, shredded, and tracked over space so that their remnants migrated and were strewn like confetti over the campus.

Rail: You graduated from Yale in ’91, then went back to graduate school at SVA four years later. What did you do between?

Sze: First, I went to Japan and lived there for almost a year. Then, when I came back, I started and was the director of a branch of an educational non-profit that still exists. It was called Summerbridge, now it’s called Breakthrough. It’s essentially a program for high-potential, low-income public school students, and for high school teachers who are interested in teaching. The model uses facilities donated by private schools in the afternoons and during the summer.

"Never Enough (Projector)," 2010, mixed media, cot 84 x 132 x 108 inches; 213.4 x 335.3 x 274.3 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Rail: Were you able to keep up making work?

Sze: Yes, I did. I was painting mostly. They were pretty bad paintings, but, yes, I was painting.

Rail: What was your experience at SVA like?

Sze: SVA is great for two reasons: one, that you’re studying with working artists, and, two, you’re given a huge deal of freedom. I loved undergraduate at Yale, but SVA was perfect for me after the structure of Yale. The first pieces I did as a graduate student weren’t paintings and were very fleeting. For example, there was a student my first year who left after a week—no one knew the reason. Anyway, I got that student’s workspace through a lottery, and what I did as a piece was take an eraser and began to erase the walls. I then collected all the eraser dust and used it to dust the whole space just as it had been left, and cover it all in a layer of eraser dust. I then removed the furniture and all the objects that had been left behind, so it was like a negative of a photograph, but it was in this strange, murky pink color. Then I swept it all up.

One of the questions that interested me when I started doing sculpture was: What are the formal things you can do with sculpture that you can’t do with painting or architecture? I was trying to do the same in several other mediums, including drawing, photography, and printmaking: asking what is essential to each medium, you can’t do in others.  I’ve always been interested in how different disciplines overlap, separate, and define themselves; essentially, I think I came to sculpture from painting and architecture.

Rail: Which brings up the whole issue of urban models in regard to architecture that appear to be both temporal and fragile, but are at the same time aggressive and subsuming. I know that the work of Tadashi Kawamata, for example, has been discussed in relation to your work.

Sze: One thing that I think is interesting about Kawamata’s work is the way in which he deals with architecture “as is,” just with what’s given.  It’s a conversation with what’s given.  In the show I just finished at Tanya Bonakdar, there’s always this pull between what’s real and what’s fake, in terms of what you’re experiencing.  There are constant questions that arise while moving through the space about what is real and about what is really functioning, really operative. Questions about what is actually doing work in terms of physically holding up or breaking apart the structures.  This works to teeter the experience between disorientation and reorientation in space. For example, when you walk into the first piece on the ground floor, there’s this alternate floor plan, so that you are confused about how to navigate through it. At every point in the composition the viewer is faced with multiple decisions about where to look or move next. Particularly in the placement of the details, there is seemingly a non-hierarchical wandering and the information fractals out.

Rail: Is the angle about 5 or 7 degrees?

Sze: [Laughing.] I actually don’t know exactly what degree it is. It was done totally by eye; I would just keep adjusting it until it looked right—just enough to get you disoriented when you’re moving through the space, but not too much so that one gesture was overly dramatic. I want the viewer to be a participant in the disorientation—I only want to provide the gun, and let the viewer choose how to use it.  The point of the tilt is to throw off the way we read space, so that the viewers needs to reorient themselves, re-locate themselves, but also to let the viewer in some way deconstruct the way they actually perceive space.

This playing with being able to perceive how the structures are made can be thought of through the lens of a very basic architectural idea that I think is fundamental to my work: the tension between ornament and structure and the play between them. It’s a subject that has been central to architecture and modernism—how the structure of a building is revealed or how architectural ornament conceals this structure. In my work, structurally it’s very simple, but I use the language of structure as ornament to make it look more fragile. For example, I have all of these strings tied from the walls to the piece, as if it’s being rigged back for stability to the building. In your periphery you imagine that these strings have a structural purpose, but in reality if you look it’s clear they can’t possibly. Hopefully, you’ll start to question how the building itself is laid out—how it’s built, how it’s holding itself up, how spaces are divided and organized—when you’re seeing the piece itself. That’s what I really love about Kawamata’s work. It’s beautiful, intense, but destructive, making the whole existing environment bleed into his work. It’s sort of like a graffiti hand that becomes part of the space on the wall.

Rail: That’s a beautiful way of describing it.

Sze: I saw a retrospective of his at the Museum of Tokyo which was almost all photographs which brings up another interesting issue: How do you preserve something like that? I’ve always thought carefully about how to document my work with photography.

Rail: Well, the monograph, with Arthur’s introduction and Linda’s essay, is a good first effort in achieving that goal. But, as far as the fragile nature of the work is concerned, one is tempted to not have an opening reception for your show! People would walk in and inevitably trip over a string that they can’t see, or knock off the little pebbles on the floor, and so on.

Sze: Actually, the disruption to the work at the opening turned out to be almost nothing! We went back the next day and the work looked great. What’s interesting to me about the opening is, it’s a unique part of the experience of the show—it’s the one time that the whole space is entirely different because the crowds become part of the view, part of the pieces. There’s no negative space around the work. All the pockets are filled with people. I like it that each viewer becomes a figure setting the scale of the architecture, or a figure in the landscape.  So at the opening, you see the work through and between the people, and therefore the negative space is narrower; whereas, if you go at another time, it’s more negotiable. Especially if you’re there alone, you would see the negative space in between the pieces differently. For me, these empty spaces in the show are almost as important as the pieces themselves. And this idea, of tripping, of making physical contact with the work, is part of the experience. As you first walk in, you have to make a conscious choice about how to walk over these 2 by 4s that are on the floor. They re-grid the layout of the gallery so that you consciously have to watch your step wherever you go. This makes you aware of your body. This is actually something that I learned from my interest in Japanese gardens: when you walk into the space of a traditional Japanese garden, there’s often a step that requires you to you look down, and then when you look up again you don’t even know that it’s been completely choreographed and composed for you.  At the point you look down and look up again in front of you there might be an incredible vista carefully composed for you in the distance. It’s a totally contrived experience, but you feel like you have discovered it all on your own. It mimics the actual experience of wandering in nature and discovering these seemingly rare natural moments.

"The Uncountables (Encyclopedia)," 2010, mixed media, metal shelves, wood shelves, lights, plastic bottles, milk cartons, 179 x 547 x 489 inches; 454.7 x 1389.4 x 1242.1 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Rail: Actually, Richard Serra spoke of this same experience when he and Joan Jonas visited a number of Zen gardens in Kyoto in 1970. The other landmark moment for Richard was Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut.”

Sze: That’s one of my favorite Giacometti’s.

Rail:  Mine too.

Sze: There’s a little allusion to a Serra in the show—a small piece on the floor with silver leaf torn along the seam where the wall meets the floor, which [laughing] is supposed to refer to his “splash pieces.”

Rail: An early reference by Serra to Pollock, of course. You also named your 2006 installation at MIT, “Blue Poles,” after Pollock’s famous painting, which the Australian government bought for their National Gallery in ’72. I think the first time the painting returned to the U.S. since its purchase—you must have seen it—was the Pollock retrospective that Kirk Varnedoe organized for the MoMA in 1999.

Sze: Yes, there and I actually also saw the painting in Melbourne, Australia, just around the time I did the MIT piece named after it. And the painting was breathtaking. The previous and more literal title of my piece was “Fire-escape for a Cat,” but I changed it to “Blue Poles,” after Pollock, to highlight the more abstract and even painterly side of this very sculptural piece.  I would say, in general, that I’ve looked at more painting than I have sculpture. As a result my sculpture is an intersection of painterly ideas about composition and architectural ideas about the use and structure of space. Formally, on the one hand, the information comes from a painting background—how you enter a painting, how you hold a composition together, through line, mark, edge, color, and so on. It seems strange that so many sculptors don’t use color when there’s so much color in the real world. On the other hand, architecture is about actual use of space, about circulation, about daylight and nightlight, about contrived space, natural space, leftover space, about who would use the space. These are the things that architects immediately have to consider.

Rail: Well, it’s not so-called modest-size painting that you’re referring to.  

Sze: [Laughing.] Sure.

Rail: You had quoted Smithson a while ago: “Size determines an object, but scale determines art.” There are artists whose works you make useful references to for your own needs, whether Judy Pfaff, Jessica Stockholder, Jason Rhoades, especially Gordon Matta-Clark. But with “Untitled (St. James’, London),” at the ICA in 1998, particularly with the ceiling, with its circular structure and the work’s vibrating, energetic computer-chip-like imagery—in some way it makes me think of James Siena’s painting, which brings up the idea of repetition and the use of the grid. James has said that he considers himself an anonymous draftsman who’s content to put the tiles, one by one, on the floor of the Taj Mahal. But I haven’t figured out your use of repetition; I could find these discrepancies in “Landscape for the Urban Dweller”—it seems sometimes to leap off the floor, morphing toward the ceiling, the skylight, and at other times it just simply suspends in midair—which relates to the issue of largeness and simplicity, where everything is of equal worth in the whole picture. This has been central to Chinese and Japanese landscape painting. But, contrary to that calmness is this intense minuteness of detail, of thousands of objects and their multiples that can be so overwhelming to look at.  So, my question: Do you think that your desire for monumentality and minuteness simultaneously may relate to your being a product of both cultures—East and West?

Sze: [Laughing.] I never think of it that way. It’s more about the shifting or tilting of scale, as we’ve been discussing. To follow up on what you said about Chinese landscape painting, at the risk of making a large generalization: you basically have two kinds of scale. One being a huge overwhelming scale, the scale of nature, of a massive natural landscape. The second is minute; if you look closely you find a tiny person, participating in the minutia of daily life­—for example the person, milking his cow on the cliff­but there is not much in between, no medium ground. You can see this in Western painting, as well; for example, Turner’s painting, where the horizon line is very low and the turbulent sky is high and looming. But I play with that idea in my work, of skipping the middle ground scale and making the radical shift from huge to minute. You’ll often on first approach have a large overwhelming perspective from afar and then shift dramatically down to the scale of the hand or the mouth. The experience in both of these scales is one of a kind of loss of one’s own body in space. It’s the one-to-one scale of the body that is the medium size scale. This scale you can play with in sculpture with the use of real that are designed and scaled to the human body. The difference in sculpture from the painting example I gave is that you’re dealing with real objects, like a ladder, for example, which has real scale—which is all about the scale of the body and the scale of the building and how those two meet. So it’s either about the body or about architecture, which is different than when you’re experiencing a painting. The medium scale is always you, moving through the work: there’s recognition that you’re in your body and that something else is pulling you out. This goes back to the creating of a landscape for the imagination and even the utopian architecture we were talking about earlier.

Rail: You know, one of the most difficult techniques when one studies martial arts, especially kung fu, is the drunken technique. Not because you have to be drunk, but because you have to think like a drunk, so that your movement becomes extremely unpredictable. In other words, while the practitioner may look intoxicated, the technique behind the appearance is highly acrobatic and skilled and requires a great degree of balance and coordination. Similarly, in the middle of the night, when you’ve had too much to drink and you try to go to the bathroom, it’s not that easy. But that’s when you don’t take the negative space for granted.

Sze: A friend of mine, who was one of the primary dancers at Tanztheater Wuppertal—Pina Bausch—said that the hardest and first test they would give any dancer who wished to be part of the company was to ask him or her to walk naturally across the stage. And, immediately, from that test you were either in or out. It’s just this idea that trying to mimic nature, even in yourself, is actually very hard. For example, the cot in the piece “Never Enough (Projector)”—it looks like it’s been eaten by moths or like it’s become a ruin. But in fact that’s my hand trying to paint or reproduce something in a way that looks like nature made it, like it happened outside of my hand, by a larger natural force. It’s an idea central to earth art—the investigation of the actual behavior of landscape, rather than the representation of landscape.

Rail: I actually see it as a carved space rather than a painted space. At any rate, let’s return to the subject of your use of material, which is store-bought, mass-produced, and readily available anywhere your commission takes you. I also know that you make a point of selecting and including objects from local stores for each given venue, which provides a vernacular touch to each project. I’m reminded of George Maciunas’s piece, “One Year,” at MoMA, in which he basically documented all the products—food, beverages, medicine—that he ingested over the course of one year, from 1973-74, and of his general indexical impulse.

Sze: If you look at the bookshelves in the front office when you walk in, the piece, “Imposters, Fillers and Editors (Liquid to Solid),” is essentially made from all of our recyclables from the lunches and snacks we ate while making the piece.  It’s made with a Fluxus influence in mind, as it is essentially also a timeline of the work we put into the installation. The objects contain and mark time, volume and literal ingestion and waste. They’re all originals. What I did was pour the liquid inside each empty container to make it solid, and then wedge them between the books in the bookcases. Here they seem to be dead objects occupying space, almost ghostlike—the way I feel a Morandi still life might be perceived. I also think of this piece as a kind of viral imposter in the library. It’s a specific moment in the show where the work literally weaves in and out of the real life archive of the gallery. I realized at the end of the show that the works might fit into two categories: Impossibilities and Imposters. As I mentioned, the larger pieces are like impossible, ultimately futile projects. The smaller pieces are all imposters in the space. They are site- specific no matter where they are placed and insinuate or attach themselves to any space. The first piece that you see as you walk into the gallery [“Stripped,” 2010] is an entry piece. It’s about negotiating the space from the street to the gallery—you see it through the window, outside, before you enter the building. The bicycle frames were stripped, painted, and chained to the gallery’s staircase, bringing the street, where you normally park and chain your bike, inside the gallery. For me as an entry piece it also introduces you to the show, the location brings up interesting questions of safety, value, private and public space, and interiority and exteriority. I like that you can’t help but anthropomorphize the two bikes. They’re like a couple, like Félix González-Torres’s clocks. And, like Félix, I’m interested in our longing for intimacy and a search to locate the intimate in generic objects that surround us. But as an entry piece you also see the stickers stripped from the bike stuck right on the window of the gallery; my stickers mix with the decals of the gallery’s name.

Rail: Invitation.

"360 (Portable Planetarium)," 2010, mixed media, wood, paper, string, jeans, rocks, 162 x 136 x 185 inches; 411.5 x 345.4 x 469.9 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Sze: Exactly. It also suggests the site where the bikes were actually stripped, so the piece becomes the evidence of an abandoned site and the maker is gone. It’s a piece you might miss on your way in, but you pass it three times—when you enter, when you go upstairs, and when you leave—so at any or all passings it will have a different kind of resonance in relation to the memory of the other works. What a viewer experiences before and after one work is so influential. I think about this all the time. If it’s a group show or a biennial, I’m always interested in who the artists are before and after me, and how people are going to walk through the exhibition space, because it’s always a fluctuating volume of space that you come into.

Rail: So would it also be fair to say that you do share with Fluxus an aesthetic appreciation for the everyday?

Sze: Yes.

Rail: Could you talk about your admiration of Flannery O’Connor, whose collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, provided the name for one of your works, which was installed in 1999 at the Cartier Foundation in Paris?

Sze: My admiration isn’t particularly specific to my work but, rather, is similar to others who admire her work, which has this very quirky, dark, rich, surprising way of weaving through these deep and twisted characters that she creates. The idea behind using referential titles is that it’s a way to mirror what I’m doing in my work, which is to excerpt something, take it out of context, and make a new context that has a new meaning. It’s the same way that, if you take a razor blade out of the hardware store and put it in isolation in one of my works, it has a different kind of language. For example, another one of my titles, “Everything in its Right Place,” comes from a Radiohead song. In this show, the title of the big piece, “The Uncountables,” is taken from a really wonderful Borges essay called “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” In the essay, the phrase is, “those that are uncountable.” I love that idea of an uncountable.

Rail: The reason I’m asking is partly because O’Connor was influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was a Jesuit priest but was trained as a paleontologist and a geologist. And the title, Everything That Rises Must Converge, came from his notion of the “Omega Point,” where in which the universe began as a disorganized complexity and then gradually evolved into this singularity, which brings up the question of both of their spiritual inclinations. My question is, were you brought up religious?

Sze: No. Neither of my parents is religious. I was brought up with absolutely no religion. Whenever I go anywhere near religion I can’t believe more people aren’t interested in art—the theatre of art and the belief that objects would represent other things in religious buildings and ceremonies is so intense to me.

Rail: I felt that your usage of elements taken from nature, ever since it was included in your P.S.1 piece, “Ripe Fruit Falling,” from 1998, has gradually increased over the years, although it’s never been that pronounced. I wonder if that might have some roots in your one-year stay in Japan when you studied ikebana, or the art of arranging flowers.

Sze: Ikebana is very interesting. Particularly the idea in ikebana of how the awkwardness, the ugly, and the morose are essential to a concept of beauty. The piece in the back room, “Never Enough,” for me has something of this apocalyptic quality in it’s beauty. But of course ikebana centers on this basic human impulse to mimic or recreate landscape—such a fundamental idea to art. And specifically the idea of truly mimicking the behavior of landscape, with things that are dying, and the idea of juxtaposing that which is real with that which is fake, man-made objects with natural objects. It also bleeds into this idea I have of making the sculptures actual systems in and of themselves and creating weather in the pieces: there is air, light, a water system, and so on, within the piece itself.

Rail: The sense of being outdoors is more present here than in your previous work. And I don’t mean just the obvious citing of the cot, which is beautifully carved. I am also thinking of the small, beautiful pebbles, which are organized carefully according to the grid, and the paper shrimp and fish sculptures, along with the long sticks that were wrapped with images derived from nature.

Sze: I guess it’s true. Its interesting to think about this idea of outdoors and indoors in a more abstract way in the work. One of the things I was really thinking about was, when you move into one of the pieces, you’re not conscious of stepping into a contrived installation. There’s not this threshold of, “do I enter the art or do I not enter the art?” It’s hopefully subtle enough that, once you realize you’re in the middle of the work, you’ve already unconsciously gotten there. For example, with “The Uncountables,” you receive this onslaught of information while being disoriented by the tilt and the shift of the axis off the center of the floor, so at first you don’t know how to enter the room and you have to choose, but as you move around the work you discover a clear path right through the center—you move into the path and you find yourself surrounded as the scale of the work shrinks to the scale of the objects on the surrounding shelves. You’re inside. When you leave this room and walk into the back room, the scale of the work, in terms of sheer numbers of elements, becomes radically sparse; besides the cot and a few other objects there is only the projected light and blowing air.

Rail: A small retreat.

Detail from "Landscape for the Urban Dweller (Horizon Line)" 2010, mixed media, wood, glicee prints, paper, string, dirt, 204 x 490 x 280 inches; 518.2 x 1244.6 x 711.2 cm. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Sze: Yes. Then, upstairs, “360 (Portable Planetarium)”—it’s almost a cliché. It’s such an iconic shape. Because of this it seemed like a risky project at the start, but now it’s an interesting piece to me because I find that so many people are strongly attracted to it. I was thinking about why this is and the following occurred to me: at once, you recognize it as a planet, and somehow probably identify it as Earth; but our usual relationship to this image is through a photograph or a film, and the perspective of the film is usually speeding out in to space, making the Earth smaller and smaller. Inevitably, one experiences a feeling of one’s relative insignificance and mortality in relationship to the scale of the universe. However, in the case of “360 (Portable Planetarium),” as you move toward it it envelops you and becomes more like a shelter. You are actually in the interior, at the center of the earth in the safety of a central, Palladian composition where you are located at the apex. When I set out to make it a personal planetarium, a planetarium for one, I didn’t fully realize how our own isolation and loneliness in relation to the scale of the cosmos would be operative in viewing the piece.

Rail: One of the elements of your work that people most appreciate is that it functions somewhere in-between: it’s neither spatially, aggressively dominant nor is it passively alluding to some other relatable experience rather than what is actually there. In any case, do you make plans for all of your installations? Or do you improvise on the spot, once you’re there on site?

Sze: It depends on the particular piece. A large part is often improvised on the spot, and if it isn’t in actuality I want it to feel that way. I want it to feel like it has some of the rawness of the studio and the live quality of a site of work.  With this show it’s very much about, how do you shift the overall scale, how do you change one experience slightly so that it can be built on the next in an interesting way? So the overall movement of the show was improvised on location. I wanted the viewer to have an unexpected experience in each space he or she enters. For example, when you see “360 (Portable Planetarium)” in the front space upstairs, the scale is very confusing, because it looks huge, right?

Rail: Absolutely.

Sze: And you can’t believe that it fits in that space. This is partially about the light. The quality of light in each location is essential. They could be light pieces. Two pieces—“Stripped,” by the front window, and “Landscape for the Urban Dweller,” below the skylight—rely on natural light. Light is thought of as a painting idea, a film idea, a photography idea—it’s not something that people think of as essential to sculpture, unless it’s light sculpture, like a Turrell sculpture, for example.

Rail: Are there other functions of the fan, apart from creating physical moments to certain areas?

Sze: It generates wind, reminding you that there is air. It’s like when you see a spotlight on a stage and you see the dust floating in the air, and it makes you aware that there is air.

Rail: When did you discover the glue gun? Everything in your work is utterly dependent upon this invention.

Sze: Pretty much from the beginning. The great thing about it is that it allows me to work and make decisions very quickly. There was a time when I was trying to experiment with other types of glue, for conservation purposes, but the conservators all said to me, “Nope. Go back to the glue gun.” They all love it. And the point is, for me, I can really paint in space and make marks quickly.

Rail: What about blue tape?

Sze: Blue tape is great. I mean, it’s at once incredibly useful as a practical tool and also relates to the very idea of temporality, desperation, improvised construction. It makes you feel that these objects could be made by anyone who would put in the time and effort.

I intentionally use sketchy materials like blue tape that make you feel that if you pulled off a piece of blue tape a string would pop, and a cinderblock would follow. I call it a portable planetarium, but you can’t imagine moving it an inch. You don’t immediately know how it stays together. It feels like it’s going to fall apart at any moment. It has a sense of demise. It has a sense that you don’t know whether it’s still in the process of being made or in the process of falling apart. Everything has the potential to be a sprung trap in the viewer’s imagination, and one thing might lead to the next, causing the work to fall apart around them. It’s a sense that the built world is incredibly fragile, is on the edge of ruin, and it’s all potentially a set trap.

Rail: Quite, opposite Kastner’s association with the childlike or the playful aspect in your work is Daniel Birnbaum’s almost successful analogy in Frieze in which he identities you as a bag lady—ways in which the objects are packed with a personal, eccentric order in your stroller or your shopping cart. And then he goes further by associating your sense of organization with some form of neurotic compulsion; but then he changes his mind by declaring that it couldn’t have been a product of obsessive automatism because the work evokes an airy sense of freedom—which I haven’t got a clue about what he meant. But do you consider yourself obsessive-compulsive in some way?

Sze: I think defined physiological categories like “obsessive-compulsive” and the viewer’s desire to identify and name them in the work are interesting in that they’re part of this idea that the work is essentially about behavior. But for me, as an artist, naming in that way is not particularly productive or important. For me, it’s really about being in the center of a process and sticking to that, in an effort to continually make challenging and surprising work. Fiction writers often talk about this in a vivid way when describing their own writing process. When people ask them, “How did you make this decision?” they say, “Well, the character told me.” They’ve developed and know their characters so well that the characters talk back to them. It’s about getting so deep into your work that it starts to tell you what to do. And then it’s about building on this conversation. Carroll Dunham, in his interview with you last year, brought up the idea of traction in one’s own work, a kind of traction that affords reinvention from one work to the next. I think that’s the goal of the artist. So, in terms of recognizing and naming the different psychological tendencies the work might bring up, I think it’s interesting that the work is in some ways like a mirror. It’s a mirror to you. If you recognize and identify, for example, obsession-compulsion, there’s some level of self-recognition in this observation. The two of us are the subject of this observation. Ultimately, it’s a conversation between you and me.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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