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Review: Activating space, a little – Sarah Sze in London

American artist Sarah Sze’s latest exhibition demonstrates once more her acute spatial sensibility. (Model Series, 2015.) Victoria Miro Galleries

The latest exhibition by New York artist Sarah Sze, across two sites of the Victoria Miro Gallery, is her first solo show in London after representing the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale. But after Venice, Sze’s current London outing is much more contained.

Sze’s installations often dominate their spaces. They occupy three dimensions with multitudes of tiny threads, wiry frames and gracefully balanced pebbles and shards of clay. Structures, armatures and mobiles are held in a delicate equilibrium, often only by clips and masking tape.

Yet these fragile and seemingly temporary structures, which give the impression of line drawings in the air, thrust outwards and upwards into the architecture of their spaces, sometimes spilling out of the gallery to the outside world. They are complex and multifaceted; chaotic and ordered, delicate yet bold.

I first encountered Sze’s work in 2012 at the MUDAM in Luxembourg, where the installation truly owned one of the museum’s more difficult exhibition spaces. The arrangement of coloured cards, threads, strings and sticks reached up into the vaulted skylight of the gallery, echoing the awkwardly angular space.

Sarah Sze installing Model Series (2015) at Victoria Miro Galleries. Victoria Miro Galleries

In that installation it was clear that Sze possesses an acute spatial intuition and a sharp sense of how to create works that resonate with and galvanize a specific space. This is precisely what more macho sculptors have aimed at for decades; but few have achieved it this successfully, particularly without welding or corten steel.

At the 2013 Venice Biennale, Sze’s Triple Point was a standout work. The installation spilled into the forecourt of the US Pavilion, dissecting and exploding the interior spaces with visually arresting structures, such as the Planetarium section. Despite the fragility of its materials and construction, the installation overwhelmed both the ostentatious neoclassical exterior of the Pavilion and its white cube interior.

The main force of much of Sze’s work is its kinetic activation of its space, in which ordinary human-scale space is transformed using everyday objects, such as paper, clips, sticks, tapes and cotton threads.

Hot on the heels of the Venice Biennale, Sze took up an artist-in-residence in the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Out of that residency came a series of installations at the museum in 2013 and 2014. The work from those residencies reappear in her current exhibition at the two London sites of Victoria Miro Gallery.

Sarah Sze, Still Life with Desk, 2013-2015. Victoria Miro Gallery.

One of Victoria Miro’s London sites is at Wharf Road, a backstreet of Islington, in a converted warehouse building, wedged between old factories and swanky residential developments. The other is at Mayfair, surrounded by other top end commercial galleries, as well as Sotheby’s.

At the Islington site, Sze re-installs three works (or, strictly speaking, three bodies of work) from her Philadelphia residency.

Visitors first encounter Still Life with Desk, 2013-2015, a life-sized three-dimensional drawing of the reception desk at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. The form of the desk is tentatively held in space by a wired framework, similar to those that appear in many of Sze’s work. The frame plots both the form and the space that surrounds it, like a grid sketched into the air onto which the work is hatched.

At the Fabric Workshop and Museum, the repeated suggestion of the actual reception desk must have uncannily evoked something visitors would have seen only moments earlier, and perhaps not consciously noticed, as they entered the space. It’s unfortunate, but that possibility of an original moment of déjà vu simply can’t occur with such a site specific work that is relocated to this different context.

On the top level of the Islington site, is Sze’s Stone Series, 2013-2015.

Sarah Sze, Installation view, Stone Series, 2013-2015. Victoria Miro Gallery

A series of monochromatic printed canvases along one wall echo the surfaces of rocks and boulders scattered around the space. A closer look reveals that some of the rocks are actually high-definition photographic prints of the surface of rocks on the surface of fabricated “rocks”. These artificial rocks are actually made of aluminium frames and foam. Of course, we’re not invited to touch them, but if we could the reality of their texture and mass would betray their artifice immediately.

In the middle level, arranged in a loose grid on the floor, is Sze’s Calendar Series, 2013-2015.

Sarah Sze, Calendar Series, 2013-2015. Victoria Miro Gallery

Each individual work is a front- and back-page spread of The New York Times, with the images carefully cropped-out with a scalpel. The newspaper is then overlaid on visually rich and emotionally evocative photographic images, of fire, sand, stone, images of the night sky. Visually congruent three-dimensional materials – rags, sand, clay, rocks – are arranged on top of many of the images.

The Calendar Series works are quite different from Sze’s usually way of working, and are more oriented towards two dimensions. Some prints created from Calendar Series are hung in frames, reinforcing this two-dimensionality. Nevertheless, these works share the same delicate aesthetic sensibility that permeates Sze’s work.

More prints from Calendar Series are hung at the second site of the exhibition, at Victoria Miro in Mayfair.

The main works at the Mayfair site, however, are Sze’s Model Series, 2015 (see main image). These a small-scale works, sitting atop their own cardboard plinths. There is less a sense of the measurement of space, mass and time present in Sze’s usual upscale installations. Consequently, her common materials – paper, thread, tape, sand – return to something closer to their more everyday origins.

In art as in most things, context is everything, and these works seem made for the context of Mayfair. Unlike Still Life with Desk, Stone Series or the Calendar Series, the Model Series works are domestic scale and, consequently, much more domesticated. The works seem almost like Sze miniatures, tamed and contained as objet d’art for a particular market. Nevertheless, even in this diminutive scale, something epic is happening in their construction and gentle equilibrium. As visitors walk around the space, the tiny stones balancing on threads move slowly in response to the air moving in the gallery.

It terms of context, it is interesting to make the comparison between this exhibition and Sze’s work at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The wild chaotic exuberance of her Venice work ran amok throughout the US Pavilion like a messily creative brat. In the context of London’s Mayfair, Sze’s works appears like Bart Simpson dressed for Sunday school – yet with a little too much energy to sit still and speak only when spoken to.

Sarah Sze’s work is showing at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, until March 14. Details here

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