Random Walk (Window), 2011. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Powel.

Back in December when it opened, I went to see Sarah Sze’s show at Asia Society, Infinite Line. The first time I saw the show was on a sunny afternoon with my husband. I eagerly noticed the details of the artwork and mentally made what I would call a visual overview of the show. Weeks later, I took my 20-year-old son and his Danish friend to see the same show one late afternoon, on the first snowy day of the new year.

My experience of the show was completely different the second time around. The light was different, so the shadows cast by the various elements of the installations were different in length and intensity. The views of the street from the windows were different. Snow covered the big stones on the balcony obscuring them and the credit cards that I knew were sticking out from under them, all part of the artwork. A circle of what I remembered as pinkish pebbles and one stone with green moss on it were also hidden from view. While some of the outside elements disappeared, other elements seemed to appear for the first time inside the museum. I saw details in the artwork that I hadn’t focused on and registered the first time I saw the show, and I saw relationships between elements that I had overlooked. Everything looked and felt different!

As the show’s name implies, Sarah Sze creates infinite lines. She also creates seemingly infinite viewpoints. Sze makes work that is so detailed, so layered, and so dynamic that it is, literally, inscrutable. The more her work is studied the more it changes, as different details and juxtapositions are discovered.

In the small Ross Gallery there are fourteen works on paper made by Sze between 1996 and 2011. At first sight they appear to be drawings, but Sze thinks of them as both drawings and sculptures. She intentionally works at the intersection of drawing and sculpture, a place where the two ideas cannot be separated.

In the large C.V. Starr Gallery, there are eight site-specific installations created for the show. But, again, the installations are each called Random Walk Drawing and given an additional descriptive title word, like (Window) or (Water). They are both sculptural installations, i.e. a collection of objects in space, and drawings that are made up of lines in a picture plane. They relate to each other in the gallery space, and are connected and separated by their titles. In fact, it is difficult to count the installation-drawings, because it is not clear where one ends and the next one begins. Luckily, you don’t have to be interested in all these definitions and boundaries to enjoy the show.

The works on paper in the Ross Gallery are included in the show to provide visual information about how Sarah Sze works, and how she has worked in the past. Three of the drawing-sculptures are on scrolls, a reference to Sze’s Chinese cultural heritage and the conventions of Chinese scroll painting. My son Alexander and his friend Pelle were especially interested in some related works in a display case. These were portraits in which a person was asked to describe the twelve most important events in his or her life. Based on this information, Sze created a pencil drawing that was like a road map or collage of vaguely drawn events from shifting perspectives. The young men spent several minutes finding events they thought they could decipher, like the adoption of a child from a far away place, the death of a loved one after a hospital stay, a snorkeling trip, and falling in love.

 

Notepad, 2008. Offset lithograph, laser engraved paper, 22 1/2 x 31 1/4 in., Edition of 40. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University.

 

Alexander and Pelle were also impressed by a work called Notepad. Notepad looks like an ordinary pad of lined paper that has been transformed into a sculptural object with many perfectly cut out rectangular holes and miniscule constructions. The curled pages create an architectural structure that resembles a building with tiny stairs and platforms in the back. In reality, Notepad was never an ordinary notepad; it was created entirely by Sze using offset lithography and laser engraving.

One of my favorite works in this gallery is a work called Checks and Balances, a delicate assemblage of layers of cutout paper colored with black ink, attached to the wall at several points using blue pushpins and taunt string. There is a pile of smooth black rocks on the floor underneath the portion of the work that is suspended on the wall. The rocks seem to connect and anchor the work to the floor. A spiraling coliseum-like form, similar to the form in another work Guggenheim as a Ruin, is depicted several times from different angles, with overlapping shifts in scale and dizzying views. Sze uses the picture elements in such a way that they loosely hold the picture plane together, but just barely – and the tension is exhilarating.

 

Checks and Balances, 2011. Stone, string, and ink on archival paper. 75 x 18 x 2 in. Collection of Stuart and Sherry Christhilf. Photo courtesy of Jean Vong.

 

The eight site-specific installation-drawings that transform the C.V. Starr Gallery create this same feeling of exhilaration on a larger scale. As visitors look into the gallery for the first time, most of them smile at the colorful and quirky landscape of oddball bits and pieces on the floor and walls. As they enter the room, they enter the landscape of artwork and become part of it. Looking around the gallery feels like looking at one of Sze’s extremely detailed drawings or series of related drawings from the inside. Guards have a challenging job as visitors get pulled into the details of the work and need to bend down, get closer or back up to examine interesting collections of objects from different angles. The experience of trying to take in the artwork is one of focusing and refocusing, getting oriented and then disoriented, and seeing images from far away and then up close. What initially looks like spontaneous, random clusters of objects is, upon closer inspection, discovered to be painstakingly systematic and carefully executed arrangements.

Sze uses many different everyday objects to create her installation-drawings, mass accumulations that resemble colorful scientific investigations or magical worlds. She dislikes lists of the objects she uses as art materials, and I understand why. It is hard to think of a household object that she hasn’t used at one time or another over the years. She has even used rolls of toilet paper. Usually the objects Sze uses are mass-produced, relatively inexpensive and without much aesthetic appeal, like plastic pens and pen caps, coins, cups, bottles, desk lamps, measuring tapes, dusters, electric fans, stools, buckets, pillows, mirrors, colorful clamps, paper, string and blue tape. She also uses natural objects, like pebbles, stones, large rocks, sticks, branches and nest-like structures made out of twigs. And for her new work at Asia Society, Sze has developed a vocabulary of images based on eye charts and charts used to test for color-blindness – a reminder that we do not all see in the same way.

 

Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart), 2011. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Powel.

 

The objects that Sze uses are arranged together in space and connected in a way that transforms them into an artwork. For example, Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart) takes the form of the Chinese scroll and the objects are placed in a way that explores the idea of perception, more specifically how we see landscapes and represent them in art. I love how Sze plays with positive and negative space, not only with her cut out landscapes and eye charts, but also by using both black and white string against black and white backgrounds.

Notice too how Sze creates a three-dimensional composition in space with the colorful objects that she uses in the work. If you start at the top of Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart) in the center of the neon orange ribbon, your eye jumps down to the colorful duster, the black rectangle, and the blue bucket. From there you see the orange weight, and then look over to the two balls of yellow string, the red clamp and yellow tape measure. The tape measure guides you up the wall with the help of the neon orange rectangle until you are back to the neon orange ribbon. There are many other paths around the work, this is just one of them.

The other seven installation-drawings work in similar ways, creating meaningful artwork out of mundane objects, and connecting to each other. My husband was fascinated by the time element the show as a whole presented. He wondered how long it took Sze and her assistants to collect all the objects, or find and unpack them if they were being reused from other site-specific works. He also thought about the mind-boggling amount of time it took to make each obsessively detailed work; how long the works would be on exhibition; and what would happen to the objects when the work was taken down. Since the installation-drawings are very hard to photograph with all the details and viewpoints they contain, I thought about how important it was to experience the work in real life and be physically present in it.

But how could the show look so wonderful and so different on two different days? I think what Sarah Sze has created is a dynamic, experimental landscape that can be experienced in infinite ways. With so many details and so many elements at play, there seems to be no limit on where to focus or what to take away from the show. My advice to any visitor is to keep an open mind and explore the experience. You don’t need to understand how the work is created or notice every detail and juxtaposition to enjoy it.

For anyone wanting to know more about Sarah Sze’s work, there is a beautiful catalog printed in conjunction with the show. The catalog has lots of photographs, but there are no photographs of the new site-specific installation-drawings because the book was published before the installation of the work was completed. There is also some very general information at the museum that can be accessed if you have a phone and earphones with you. And there is a video of the Sze talking about Infinite Line below.

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