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Sarah Sze’s ecosystems model the complexity of reality

Author: Marc Pottier, Art Curator based in Rio de Janeiro
Article published on March 16th, 2021

In a kaleidoscope of physical and digital objects and images, lights and sounds, Sarah Sze creates immersive ecosystems that challenge our senses as well as their environment. Two of her hypnotic experiences can be seen at La Guardia Airport in New York and De Nuit en Jour at the Fondation Cartier in Paris until the end of May, 2021.

Increasing our perceptive abilities

Sarah Sze Images in Debris
Photo: Mike Barnett

Since the late 1990s, Sarah Sze has used a wide variety of media to explore the hybridisation of information and technology, to question the notions of entropy, temporality and the precariousness of both reality and nature.

His sculptural installations feature expansive ecosystems with multiple techniques, objects gleaned from everyday life (plants, tools, Q-tips, drawing pins, birthday candles, aspirin tablets…) and images collected from discount shops and hardware stores. They illuminate « the fragility of life, a reflection on time and memory, a physical presence that plays with scale and questions the way we measure ourselves against nature. I try – she explains – to make a host of inanimate objects look alive and create an evolving ecosystem, a reminder of how precious life is ».

Nothing is trivial

Sze Plein Air (Times Zero), 2020 (Detail)

In her very evasive constructions, the Chinese-American artist transcends the materiality of objects and images that she literally suspends in a fragile equilibrium, secured by fine scaffolding made of pieces of wood, ladders, plastic tubes through which water can pass…. « Nothing is insignificant to me, a glass of water can be spectacular. We all have a form of dullness of the senses, » she recently confided. I try to turn up the volume, to increase our perceptive capacities as when we travel and our senses are alert, to show what surrounds us. » At first medium-sized, now large-scale, her works seem to be perpetually on the verge of a metamorphosis.

Sculpture goes beyond its field

It is impossible to reduce to a single image and a single glance the inanimate or connected elements assembled in such a profusion and subtle superposition of materials. Her worlds invite us to move around in order to better discover the multiple angles and visual and physical contrasts : plane and volume, immobility and movement, organisation and chaos. She plays with the phenomena of opposition/attraction, infinitely small/infinitely large, light/shadow, creating a sensation of magnetic tension outside any frame. « Sculpture goes beyond its field into the world in a very complex way that is not bound to its frame. In painting, the world spills into the frame and sometimes we confuse the frame with the world. », comments the artist.

Questioning the value of the objects around us

Sarah Sze, Time Keeper, 2016, Rose Photo Mike Barnett

This extraordinary conductor of symphonies of her plethora of materials was born in 1969 in Boston and now lives and works in New York. Dispersed as exponential constellations in space, these sprawling sculptures are the result of improvisations around the physics and science of a miniaturist who always takes into account the exhibition space in the literal sense. Her training as an architect allows her to model the proliferation of information and overabundance of disparate objects and elements in installations. Sarah Sze « encourages us to ask questions, to get lost, to make discoveries, to make decisions about what is important and what is not, like in nature. » As a consequence, we put into perspective the value, meaning and purpose we give to objects and images, blurring meanings and uses.

Activating a sense of precariousness/vulnerability

Sarah Sze’s work also provokes the tension between amazement and anxiety generated by the profusion of information and objects in contemporary life. The feeling of precariousness/vulnerability is a persistent theme that she develops in her laboratory where unknown processes of observation, exploration or measurement are underway. Not afraid to disorientate the viewer more and more as she makes her discoveries; « I like this idea of blurring a piece in the world so that it follows you into the work, so that you recognise intimate things in it, and then this work allows you to look at the world in a new way. ».

Modelling complexity

Sarah Sze. Centrifuge, 2017 (Haus Der Kunst 2017)

We had the chance to consider with her a version of ‘Triple Point (Pendulum)’ for the spaces of the Centro Cultural do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro in 2014/15. This work takes its title from the term ‘the triple point of water’ in reference to the temperature-pressure phase where its three forms liquid, solid and gas can coexist. It is a sculpture in a state of flux where many forms coexist at once. The pendulum of an oscillating pendulum digging into a void defines the limits of the work. The piece acts as a kind of mechanism, where the movement of the pendulum determines the structure and placement of the objects. It creates a hypnotic effect that draws the viewer in. But at the same time, the movement constantly threatens the work, creating an increased sense of anxiety and fragility. The experience of the work places you in two states. On the one hand you are hypnotised and on the other threatened.

A return to painting

In recent years, she has returned to painting – her first medium – producing works that match with her sculptural accumulation processes. These paintings in her collages are teeming with detail and strong texture. In some of them, pieces of photographs are torn apart resulting in abstract paintings that evoke pixelation. Sarah Sze applies layers of paint above and below these jagged paper geometries, weaving them into each composition in large-scale arcs forming undulating lines and shimmering gradients. In others, the textures are pure trompe l’oeil, achieved solely through photographic collage.

Guaranteeing the future

The project is in its infancy. But as a good businessman, Marcos is already thinking about making it sustainable so that FAMA will not depend on him alone. A first sponsor has appeared with Itau Cultural. Of course, with his teams, they are working to put this new destination on the world map. It is already one of the Brazilian pearls not to be missed for all the art lovers and the curious in general who will come to the region when the nasty virus will have finished tickling us. Until then, Marcos Amaro won’t stop anyway! He is waiting for you.


How can you talk about the weather in an airport?

Heaven »—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopeless—hang—
That— »Heaven » is—to Me!

Emily Dickinson


Sarah Sze, Shorter than the Day, 2020 Photo Nicholas Knight, LaGuardia Gateway

If Sarah Sze’s work can give the impression of fragility, her latest installation Shorter than the Day at New York’s La Guardia Airport, recently unveiled in Terminal B (along with other works by artists Jeppe Hein, Sabine Hornig and Laura Owens), is the opposite. The monumental spherical installation with its aluminium and steel structure floats above the heads of travellers; it is visible from the Departures level and extends one floor down to the Arrivals level. Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) poem « we have passed the setting sun, or rather he passed us », the work evokes the passage of time through one of its extraordinary constellation-mirages made up of hundreds of photographs. Each one shows a snapshot of the sky over New York during the course of a day, taking viewers from the yellow of dawn to the various blues of daylight to the orange of sunset and finally to the purple of the stroke of midnight. This globe invites the public to move around in order to appreciate all these facets. Paradoxically, it contrasts with the hustle and bustle of the airport, inviting you to slow down and meditate on the ephemeral.

Who has not found the Heaven – below –
Will fail of it above –
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove –

Capturing the planet’s Critical Zone

The great anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-), visiting the exhibition De nuit en jour at the Fondation Cartier, could not help but shout his admiration: « I was witnessing the birth, not of Venus emerging from the waters, but of Gaia emerging from nothing. This multiple glittering of worlds inserted into worlds could only be called, in my eyes, the ‘Critical Zone’. Scientists call it the thin layer of life that gives the planet Earth its colour, animation and complexity, in contrast to the globe as we are used to seeing it from space.

Sarah Sze Twice Twilight, 2020, exposition De nuit en jour, Fondation Cartier © Sarah Sze Photo © Luc Boegly


The artist does not like to talk about the globe. For her, the world is a construction. It is the eye of the visitor who, from a distance, with a certain perspective, can create an image of the globe. But this amazing immersive work, this ‘life work’ could just as well be a nest where the artist has brought her swirls of images, her time-lapses of the sky, all these reference images to tell us about the fluidity of time. As you approach the work, which you can enter or walk around, caught between the central sculptural composition and the projections on the large windows of the foundation, there is no longer a globe but just the observation of a gigantic ecosystem. The artist sees this work as « anti-monumental ». She speaks of its fragility, comparing it to that of life. All these objects are there to try to make you understand our microcosm better.

The importance of impossible ideas

In a world flattened by screens, Sarah Sze uses her ‘animated objects’ to better capture and understand the world. This artist in orbit underlines the importance of impossible ideas, where the almost carnal ‘physical’ dimension of her works is combined. She gives back access to 3D even if she does not turn her back on digital as shown by – covid obliges – Night Vision 20/20, her first work in augmented reality downloadable on Apple Store and Google Play….

This consolation prize cannot make us forget that her installations offer an incredible breath of fresh air, a creative oxygen that will make future visitors to the exhibition De Nuit en Jour at the Fondation Cartier blow their minds. Don’t miss it as soon as it reopens!