“Are these keys a part of the exhibit or are they yours?” was the first thing that blurted out of my mouth to the two security guards as I visited the Sarah Sze exhibition titled Infinite Lines on view at the Asia Society through March 25, 2012. The response had the typical New York no-nonsense inflection as one of the guards told me “No, they are a part of the exhibition.” The keys hung on the gallery’s security system box with the same ease that the security guards leaned on the double glass doors and spoke with one another.
This work with the keys, labeled as 1 on the gallery diagram, is assumingly the best place to start. It is titled Random Walk Drawing (Compass) and sets the theme for how masterfully Sarah Sze manipulates the gallery to play with the features of the space, such as its boxed shape, vantage points, solitary window, lighting, and even utilitarian features such as fire alarms, electrical sockets, and a 3-3126 Isuzu Electronic Precision Thermo Hydrograph, that, a security guard was kind enough to tell me, monitors the humidity. Sze’s intimate understanding of space is derived from the fact that she works within it to create her architectural installations. Similar to the way that Sze uses utilitarian objects inherent in the gallery, her artistic tools become a part of the work as well. Things like pen caps, blue painter’s tape, and desk lamps serve as remnants of her artistic process. The, oftentimes, precarious placement of the objects makes the viewer hyperconscious of their own space. Sze’s emphasis on the room, her work within it, and her interest in making the viewer aware of the empty space surrounding them makes her installations less about the objects that she uses and more about the negative space that fills the room.
Random Walk Drawing (Compass) consists of a photograph of clouds that rolls down the wall and finishes, still scrolled at the bottom. Cutouts are created so that the gallery’s fire alarm, security system box, exit button, and key holes peek through the photograph. The mysterious set of keys dangles off the security system box. A white piece of paper with a circular design of cutout holes, a consistent theme within the exhibition, is taped against the photograph. Beneath this cluster, the thermo hydrograph is propped on its box. In homage to the Surrealist artist’s proclivities to the obscure, Sze props a bulb of garlic in front of the thermo hydrograph. A desk lamp juts off of the box and leads the viewer’s gaze downwards. A photograph of an aerial view of suburbia is propped up against the box. A twig extends up from this, presenting itself as a sad, sweet tree. The photograph has the same perfectly circular cutouts to mimic the cutouts on the white piece of paper. These tiny pieces of the photograph circle themselves outside of the work on the floor and surround a rock in a very compass-like fashion. Three pen caps are precariously placed outside of this semi-circle into, what is traditionally, the viewer’s space. (I was afraid of kicking them, and I was surprised that the pen caps were in the same exact location the second time I visited the exhibition.) A large wooden arch extends from the very top of the work to the very bottom of the compass, and the gentle touch of the arch on the floor is encircled by a roll of blue painter’s tape.
The majority of criticism surrounding Sze’s work focuses on the same laundry list of objects listed above. While the unique character of the materials that she chooses to use creates a theme, story, or illusion, I am left with the sneaking suspicion that most important part of the exhibition is what is not there.
There is a distinctive human presence in Sze’s exhibition. Her installations are made from delicate, ephemeral materials that have been manipulated by the human touch. In her work titled Random Walk Drawing (Window), Sze creates an intricate web of string that leads the viewer down the floor, up the wall, and even out of the window. Small bits of blue painter’s tape hold the string in place as the lines directs the eye towards different architectural formations made from discarded materials from our daily life, such as a paper coffee cup or a crumpled airline boarding pass. The line drags your eye through the large window (which until this exhibition had been closed for nearly a decade) and onto the terrace facing Park Avenue. The rushing cars, people, trees, and noise on the street become a part of the work. The entire installation appears so delicately structured that it looks like it could easily fall apart. The use of everyday materials and the evidence that the work is created largely on site strongly indicates of Sze’s presence as an artist.
The presence of the artist and the precarious placement of objects on the floor is a deliberate attempt to make the viewer conscious of their own movement through the space. Sze acts as a choreographer, leading the viewer around the room and having their eyes dance from one part of the installation to another part, one installation to another, and around the room. Sze’s major intention with this exhibition is to blur the boundaries between drawing and sculpture, making the works inherently linear and creating a complex play of scale and perspective that is inevitable as two dimensional works become three dimensional. The negative space becomes important.
The importance of negative space is most apparent in Sze’s Random Walk Drawing (Frame). A complex, geometric box-like structure rests on a plexi-glass box on the floor. The structure is a series of lines that creates interlocking box-like shapes. The entire linear structure is covered in a tactile black tape that furls off one end of it and loops around the plexi-glass box on the floor. Tiny flecks made from the same black tape mark the wall at the exact angles of the box structure’s cast shadow. Sze’s structure frames an area of empty space, and in some humorous and genius act of trickery, she leads the eye along imaginary lines directing the viewer’s gaze to the dots on the wall. Simultaneously, she emphasizes the importance of the negative space and reconnects the viewer to the gallery by directing attention to the utilitarian lighting features.
Sze’s installations in the Infinite Line are playful. The linear structures bounce the eye and the attention back and forth from the work to the wall, out the window and back, to the floor, to the ceiling, from the keys to the security guard, like a dance, until the entire space pulses with energy. In a space with this sort of dynamic movement, everything, even empty space, is important and deliberate.
Caroline Rush received her bachelor’s degree in art history from Rutgers University and her master’s degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design. After working two and a half years at the SCAD Museum of Art as a museum assistant and assistant curator, she moved to the business side of the art world. Caroline currently works in the Chairman’s Office at Christies in New York and continues to write about art as a freelance writer.