Sarah Sze Creates Time Through Art

Known for her playful treatment of time, the New York-based artist constructs an otherworldly centrepiece in her new show, 'Pictures at an Exhibition.'

Taking over the entire bottom floor of Gagosian’s rue de Ponthieu gallery in Paris is the kaleidoscopic, mixed-media centrepiece of Sarah Sze’s latest exhibition, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Before you reach the main work, you see its overflow: guests are greeted to a floor of shadows, different sized blacked-out squares in their own multicoloured frame – the remnants of Sze’s polychromatic artwork. Rhythmic heartbeats usher guests closer to the primary installation, which seems to sit untethered in space – Sze’s first that isn’t encased within a metal structure.

Known for her playful treatment of time, Sze’s construction creates an otherworldly space, pulling guests into the multitude of short clips playing on pieces of paper that float before them. The collection of moments flash by in a cadence that feels oddly familiar – like scrolling through social media – before the moment is finished and, suddenly, a different, larger clip starts playing. This is the beauty of Sze’s work: the creation of a space and time that feels both familiar and jarring.

In your artist’s statement, you mentioned that you wanted to “remind people that they are a witness to the work.” Could you expand on this?

I think that’s a part of this idea of an artwork being a live moment in time. That feeling of the preciousness of that moment and the fleetingness of it. I think, in many ways, that’s how we mark time. I think also, post Covid, there’s this longing for the live, whether it’s live sports, museums or live events. They give a sense that there’s this shared moment in time where something happens that you just don’t have control over, like the ball slipping out of their hand or the note that the singer hits that they’ve never hit before. So how do we do that with an inanimate object? If you feel like you’re bearing witness to an event when you see an artwork, for me, that’s a very special moment. When I go through a museum and I see something that moves me, I get a sense of, ‘Did everyone feel this?’ You have this incredible moment where you have a conversation through an inanimate object with the maker and with everyone who’s seen it.

As we know, time is relative, but the idea of emotional time is very interesting. Sarah Sze

You often reference time and how objects can be markers of time. What’s your own relationship to time?

I’m a very bad timekeeper. I’m always late, I have no sense of time. Maybe if one of your senses are deprived, you start to grow it in a kind of abstract way. So, I think a lot about how to mark time and how to create a narrative through the importance of a moment. I think a post-Covid idea that has become more important is serendipity and spontaneity. When we think we’re having a narrative experience on screens, we also know in the back of our head it’s being mitigated the whole time. There’s one moment in the films where these birds go up in the air all at once, and it’s something you could never recreate, could never have planned. That mundanity that happened with isolation during Covid, I think, caused people to lose a real sense of time. As we know, time is relative, but the idea of emotional time is very interesting. How do you mark 20 years ago? You would probably have maybe six memories to mark that, and those are always evolving. Things that happen to you will also trigger memories. Your own sort of portrait of self in time is constantly being shifted by what’s happening in the moment and reinventing your history.

When I was walking around the installation I felt as if I became a part of the piece, as the videos from the projection fell upon me and cast a shadow on the work. Was that intentional?

Absolutely. It’s kind of what you were saying, to witnessing the work in a more literal way, that you sense that you’re a part of it, that you actually become part of it. If you’re in that space with other people as well, you see the images on them and how their movement and reflections come into it. Also, there’s no way you can get all of that piece. That’s one of the ideas that when you leave you might say to someone “Oh, did you see the burning pot of fire?”, [and] they say, “No I saw the fox.” So, there’s a sense of trying to navigate a lot of information at different times and in different ways.

The idea of people seeing different things within the videos is similar to the idea of someone’s perception of an event being totally different to another person’s…

Absolutely, which is the nature of narrative. Which is such a classic idea used in novels where you have multiple characters telling a story. That’s also interesting to me – how do you make a piece that you know is being experienced by many, feel very interior. With the works here it’s a portal in some ways to a human’s interior. So, there’s references to specific things but there’s a feeling that it could be yours.

Sarah Sze, Pictures at an Exhibition, 2023. Mixed media, paper, clamps, string, and stones Overall dimensions variable © Sarah Sze Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

What made you decide on the number 10 for the number of video sequences that would be shown in the installation?

I wanted to make a film that was a timekeeper in itself and thinking about an artwork as a tool to locate us in time and space. There are people classically who have done this: Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten. I was shown that as a child growing up and I loved that film as a tool to measure time, space and scale. That’s probably the exact reference for it, this idea of a countdown. But it’s kind of a faux measurement of time: you get lost, and then it grounds you, and then you get lost again. It’s a different play of time, it’s more about being located in the verse and then letting yourself loose. The timing on it is fast enough so you don’t get enough.

I think Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth was this amazing piece in the moment because I think, this is my own opinion, it’s because he has done a lot of advertisement editing and it was edited at an advertisement pace. So, when we went in we could recognise, it even though it wasn’t an advertisement. We were totally fluent in the language of the speed of images so we could read it in a way.

Even though [my piece] is overwhelming, the younger you are the less overwhelming this piece is, because there’s an ability to take on many images quickly. That’s also something that’s investigated in it, having the edits at a space that we’re kind of used to so it leaves you wanting more.

How much does sound play into your work?

I’m really interested in sound. I had a show in Paris during Covid and I had to do the whole thing remotely. We got this little window where I could come into France, and I came for the end. But the one thing that was completely wrong was the sound, because you can’t experience sound on the computer at all in the space. We often preference the visual but sound has a huge effect on how we’re experiencing, maybe more than sight. The sound on this piece is a metronome, but it has a kind of heartbeat quality to it. As soon as you hear it, it’s you can’t stop hearing it. Sound [for me] is as much about the memory of the sound as it is what you actually hear.

Who is your Mastermind?

A person who I always refer to is Emily Dickinson. The work is so contemporary, I can read it all day. It has this quality of things I’m interested in like shifts and scale. It can go from a fly buzzing to death. The most simple and mundane to the most profound within a word. It has humour, serendipity and complete invention, as well as lightness and weight and speed and rhythm, and the complete destruction and recreation of language in an incredibly interior way.

Pictures at an Exhibition is on now at Gagosian until September 28.

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