Sarah Sze’s Worlds of Wonder and Futility

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Go to the Guggenheim Museum. Climb past the gift shops and walls of Gego and Picasso. Awaiting you on the top floor is the niftiest migraine you will ever experience. The artist responsible, Sarah Sze, has contributed a set of site-specific pieces that look like a single shantytown of projectors, plastic bottles, potted plants, paintings, photographs, papers, and pills, to name only a handful of the “P”s. There are thousands of other bits, many of them mass-produced tools doing any job but the one they were made for. Everything is stacked or fanned or strewn, and looks a sneeze away from collapse. Red clamps and blue tape take credit for the hard work done by secret dabs of glue, while other yips of color compete with the gray floors, and lose. Most of the installations are lit by the museum’s glow, and one isn’t lit at all, but for some reason I imagine the entire set in the prickly glare of a conference room.

Clutter is Sze’s medium. She can infuse it with any flavor and play it at any volume. Some of what happens in her work is accidental—“P” is also for “pedestal fans,” which blow through the exhibition, rustling threads and scraps—but even accident is just another one of her ingredients, measured out to the milligram. A team of assistants keeps things in a permanent state of fussy disarray, dropping by thrice a week to adjust threads, refill plastic bottles to make up for evaporation, and so on. The results are less a parody than a triumph of micromanagement: much of the fun in these installations comes from seeing how thin they can stretch, how many different things and ideas and tones they can keep going at once. Images from every land and clime hint at the absurdity of an interconnected planet, as well as the glory. A little circle of rocks, matches, and other stuff reminded me both of Stonehenge and the Stonehenge replica my fifth-grade class built out of blocks and paper-towel rolls.

“Slice,” 2023.

What is this exhibition about? The bad news is that clutter doesn’t like being interpreted. The good news is that, whatever your interpretation happens to be, you’ll be able to find some evidence for it. Sze’s work has been said to address history, memory, neoliberalism, globalization, the Internet, environmental collapse, capitalism, late capitalism, the end of history, the end of the world, and the end of painting. At the Guggenheim, these and dozens of other plausible themes smear together, leaving you with the dazed intuition that something of vast importance is being communicated just out of earshot. Most (all?) conceptual art is baffling, of course. What distinguishes Sze’s stuff from, say, Duchamp’s is her insistence on bafflement as a form of realism, instead of an avant-garde prank. If art is about making sense of things, she said in a 2019 TED talk, then her goal is “to try and find the kind of wonder, but also the kind of futility, that lies in that very fragile pursuit.” She’s not provoking, she’s depicting—her work might not add up, but neither does the world.

Which is why you should take this exhibition’s title, “Sarah Sze: Timelapse,” with a grain of salt. Sze’s installations are about time only slightly more than they are about Sharpies. Don’t try to figure out why what’s here is here. Instead, ask yourself what has been left out—what’s been chiselled away from the raw slab of Everything? Individuality and interiority, for starters; like J. M. W. Turner or James Cameron, Sze doesn’t really do human-scale art. (There’s a fuzzy photo of a sleeping girl, but part of her head is covered by a roll of tape.) There’s something refreshing about her work’s impersonality; while other artists wallow in their silly little lives, daring audiences not to care, Sze goes for something more coolly universal. She was born in Boston in 1969, got her B.A. from Yale and her M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts, and then set about winning the kind of success normally reserved for soul-sellers: commissions for M.I.T. and the High Line, a MacArthur grant, biennials around the world. I suspect that impersonality is a not-inconsiderable reason for this acclaim—her work, unburdened by backstory or cultural particulars, plays as well in Venice as it does in Guangzhou. She’s the global champ of above-the-neck art, nothing ravishing or throbbingly intimate but nothing indulgent or obnoxious, either.

And as you spend more time with these installations, you do begin to see how their parts fit together. A sharp little “eureka” strikes when you realize that the long blue string in “Diver” reaches all the way up to the oculus of the Guggenheim and then down to the fountain on the ground floor; a second one comes a few feet later, when you notice that a pendulum is being guided by a fan. “Timekeeper,” the final piece in the exhibition, is the odd one out in a couple of ways: the only one displayed in a dark room, one of the few clearly demarcated from its peers, one of two not made in 2023. From a desk piled high with plastic jars, plastic plants, and other junk, rotating projectors dress the walls in water, animals, and static. Sit and watch, and the explosion of images becomes more predictable, until you can sense the little square of static zipping by a second before it actually does. You may never understand Sze’s art, but you can’t help but adjust to its rhythms. The intended effect seems to be something like runner’s high for the mind: a sense of being exhausted yet euphoric, trudging and floating at the same time.

“Diver,” 2023.

Of course, not everyone likes running. To go back to that TED talk, I’d say that Sze is only so-so at conveying a sense of wonder. The ingenuity of her designs can transform any room, but they can’t always pull off that weird mixture of shock and inevitability, as good a definition of the W-word as any I know. (I’ll admit that I felt a genuine thrill when I noticed the blue string shooting down to the floor, but that’s what being on the top floor of the Guggenheim always does to me.) When Sze does enthrall, it has little to do with size or complexity. She knows that futility need not be dull, and, in “Timekeeper,” it’s downright funny. Consider the desk again: nearly all the objects on it are recognizable everyday products, but in the dark they seem alien, some of them more than a little ridiculous. You may feel a certain sheepishness on behalf of our species (after eons of evolution, this is all we’ve come up with?). You may also find yourself praying that the twenty-first century makes more sense in hindsight than it does right now—and that, when future archeologists excavate our cities, they’ll have something clever to say about the San Pellegrino bottles. ♦


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