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November 5, 2012 Walter Annenberg Annual Lecture: Sarah Sze
ADAM WEINBERG: Good evening, everyone. Thank you all for being here, post-Sandy, or at least partly post-Sandy. I also want to make a special thanks to the Whitney staff: our offices have been rather disrupted, but the staff insisted that the show must go on, and I’m happy they did, because you can see from the turn-out tonight that it was well wroth the effort, so thank you Margie and Katherine and everybody else. [applause] I’m Adam Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney, and I want to welcome you to the eighth annual Walter Annenberg lecture series. This program highlights a distinguished artist who’s made a significant contribution to American art and culture. I would particularly like to acknowledge tonight Steven and Anne Ames. Steven is our beloved trustee, and Anne his amazing wife, um, uh, who are here tonight representing the Annenberg family. I can see that I’ve embarrassed them again, because they’re looking down at the ground [laughter], but thank you so much for you great support of the museum. [applause] This is one of the great pleasures of being the director of the Whitney, you are allowed to embarrass people just as they embarrass you. But it is our great pleasure and honor to present Sarah Sze for this year’s Annenberg lecture. Sarah’s work has been groundbreaking in its approach to sculpture and the transformation of space. Known for her large-scale installations, works on paper, wall-mounted reliefs, she continually redefines our sense of perception through her extraordinary capacity to assemble thousands — literally, thousands – of small, everyday objects: toothpicks, plastic flowers, ice cube trays, aspirin, and scores and scores of other materials, and balance them, almost magically, in archetonic works of massive scale. This singular approach to sculptural work, and the unique vocabulary that she has developed have established her as one of the most important artists working today. Sarah has said that scale is at the heart of her work, and citing a quote by the great artist Robert Smithson that speaks to her method, she said, she, she quoted, ‘Size determines an object, but scale determines the art; if viewed in terms of scale, not size, a room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system.’ She says that for her, the challenge is to find a balanced location somewhere on the scale from the mundane to the profound. And we’ll address that, I hope, a little bit tonight. Indeed, every one of her projects transports the viewer through a process of telescoping out from the minute to the grand, recalibrating one’s sense of near and far, center and edge. Sarah’s work celebrates the complexity of seeing and knowing, of orientation and disorientation. We look at her sculpture and we think that we know what something is, only to have that certainty upended by careful looking or by an ingenious sleight of hand. Her works have an endless capacity to surprise and delight, with their constantly evolving subjects and objects. The Whitney has long believed in Sarah’s vision of what an artwork can be: she was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, had a solo project, ‘The Triple Point of Water,’ here in 2003 — she told me tonight what the triple point of water is, and maybe we’ll get her, get her to repeat it on stage — and that was done in 2003, we’ll see some images of that tonight. Sarah has had numerous solo exhibitions around the world, including the ICA in London, the Malmö Konsthall in Sweden, the Cartier Foundation in Paris, the MUDAM Museum in Luxembourg, and in the US, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Walker Arts Center, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and recently at the Asia Society in New York and, uh, a spectacular installation on the High Line. In addition to the Whitney’s collection, her work is held by MOMA, the Guggenheim, SF MOMA, LACMA and many others. She is recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and the AICA Award for Best Project in a Public Space for the project she did on the High Line, which I hope many of you had a chance to see. And she also received an American Federation of the Arts Cultural Leadership Award. I’m particularly grateful that Sarah is here tonight because she has taken this year to devote herself to working almost exclusively on her 2013 Venice, uh, Biennale project, which will be presented this June. Um, so we’re very honored that she is the artist who is representing the United States, and we’re happy, uh, to have her join us here this evening. So, Sarah, come on up and we’ll talk! (05:00) [applause]
SARAH SZE: Thanks, thanks, Adam, I, quickly, that was just a really, it was a really nice introduction, and one of the things that I have always appreciated, even before I knew Adam, was that whenever I heard him speak publically, um, when, when he was a curator, and then when he became a director, was he always thought about ideas. And he always talked about art, he always mentioned artists, no matter what he was doing, and he always had sort of a real, um, finger on, sort of the beginning of why everyone is here, I think. So, so I always appreciate that about you, so thank you, it’s very thoughtful.
ADAM WEINBERG: Thank you. Up, that’s mine, yup, ok. So, let’s start maybe from the beginning, uh, and, you know, you were trained in painting and architecture, but I think of your work, and I think most people do, is dealing more with the notion of installation, and sculpture. Um, what is sculpture, for you, and, um, how does that differ from installation, or does it? And I think we have some images, we could jump right in, I think that’s always the best way to work.
SARAH SZE: So, um, you know, Adam asked me to bring some slides, and he gave me a sense of some of the things he was gonna ask, so I thought I’d start with this, this image, it’s an image from when I was actually in graduate school, and undergrad, I had studied, as Adam, uh, mentioned, you know, I studied architecture, and, uh, painting, actually. Um, and I think a lot of the way I came to sculpture was from those two places. Um, I think from painting, one of the things I really loved about painting was the improvisation, this idea that as you produced a painting, you know, this traditional sense of painting, but that’s really what I was, what I was trained in, but that every time you put down a mark, the entire painting changed. And so that the way of making sculpture really was this incremental mark making, where you did, where you found things in that process. Um, and then very fundamental things about architecture, just scale, circulation, um, relationship of, you know, the body in space, um, so when I came to sculpture I really asked this question about, about objects, and what, what can an object do that a painting can’t do, um, you know, how does an object become valuable, and I started with this idea of using materials that in some ways were very, you know, the least valuable thing that we could think of, and for, I sort of used the equation of value in terms of something that was not thought of aesthetically at all, but entirely used practically. And so I started by doing a piece that was made all of toilet paper, so I just sat down and made, um, you know, I made these rules, so we were talking about Sol LeWitt and rules earlier, but, before this, but, you know, I made these rules that I would sit down and I would take one sheet of toilet paper, make something, and keep making it until it became uninteresting, and then make something else. Um, this piece was first made in my studio, and then they asked me to put it in a show, but in my studio I let it kind of climb all over the studio space [laughter] um, but when they wanted to put it in a show, they wanted to put it in a, sort of a rug in the middle of the room, and what I, what I decided I really wanted to do was make it feel like you couldn’t tell what had happened, why it had happened, where the beginning was, where the end was, so that first image was actually the storage room of the, of the space. So, that was sort of the beginning, and then I started pulling in, this was back in my studio, and I started pulling in things, I really wanted to play with this question of what can you do with a sculpture that you can’t do with a painting, and I was really frustrated with painting that it had these borders, and that you were constantly referring to painting itself, no matter what you did. So this is actually my studio, and I was also interested in the idea of a practical space becoming aesthetic, you know, and having no use, so that’s my chair in the corner, of my desk that, you know, it’s, the whole space became taken over by the art.
ADAM WEINBERG: It’s interesting, in these first works, I really, it feels as though you’re making paintings on the floor, or making compositions on the floor, and actually I was just thinking, and there, up here’s the ladder, if you were up on the ladder, it’s almost like you’re looking down at the work, but yet the ladder is part of the work.
SARAH SZE: There’s the next slide!
ADAM WEINBERG: There you go. [laughter]
SARAH SZE: Yeah, and I put in these slides in, too, cause Adam asked me a bunch of questions about how do you move from sculpture to painting, and in the beginning I actually think many ways I was, I was using objects in a painterly way, and they were on a surface, um, and, uh, as I started to do more — more, this is the last I’ll show you — this piece was, they asked to bring to a gallery space, and again, they wanted to put it on a pedestal, so I went to the space and I decided I wanted to put it actually (10:00), again, on an existing, in an existing space. So as you entered the gallery, it went all along the right side of the gallery, down the windows, um, and pulled you actually into the gallery dealer space, I wanted to play with this idea of when you go in a gallery, sometimes you’re not sure what part’s for you, what part’s for the gallery, and really pull you into private and public spaces and in between, um, and not know where, was the lamp mine, was the lamp theirs, was the window supposed to be open, um, so these were all little, these are all objects, there are about two hundred and fifty objects made out of, sculpted out of Ivory soap [laughter] and then they were mixed in with found objects, so again, you sort of didn’t know what was made and what wasn’t made.
ADAM WEINBERG: These works are pretty planar, I mean in they’re all sitting on planes —
SARAH SZE: Yup.
ADAM WEINBERG: - and I mean two, it brings up two questions: I mean, first of all, at what point did you move away from just doing these planar —
SARAH SZE: Yup.
ADAM WEINBERG: - and start to open it up so that it became really more of an environment, and, and the other thing I’m really struck by is when you were talking about how you couldn’t tell the difference between the gallery objects —
SARAH SZE: Yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: - and the things you put in, I was thinking about Rauschenberg’s line about how art is, um, you know, acting in the space between, you know, or his combines were acting in the space between art and life. And so I’m thinking that your work was somewhere between, you weren’t quite sure if it was life or the work itself. Those are two questions, but —
SARAH SZE: Yeah, no, so I mean, the, I’ll add to the second one, the first one second. The second one, yeah, I mean, he had asked me a little bit about artists, um, who had influenced me, and I, one of the things that’s interesting is I think I was really early on influenced by seeing art in museums, you know, we were, I was, as a child, from a family that went to, liked to go to museums, and I saw Rauschenberg’s work very early, and this, it was, you know, this excitement of something that moved from the wall to the plane and back again, that tension between the two, I mean I probably was about ten years old when I first saw it. I mean I think Rauschenberg, I think Serra, when I first saw, I think the first piece I saw of his was the splash piece, and just his, you know, the way he deals with materials, gravity, um, you know, the sensitivity to what a material can do and all its potential, sculpturally. Um, and I think Louise Bourgeois, I saw very early on, and this idea that you could transform an inanimate material to something so intimate was something I was really drawn to. Um, but going to this, I put it these slides because I decided to put in a slide of something that was just really playing with everything that sculpture could do that you couldn’t do in a painting, and this is a, um, a piece I did in the Sanaa building in Kanazawa, Japan, a pretty amazing building, and everything is sort of circular in this building, and you enter actually below ground, and you go above ground, and then the whole building is one floor. So you enter here, and this idea that you don’t really know what you’re looking at. This is, I’m playing with this idea of sculpture in the round, and seeing something fall apart in front of your eyes as you move through space. So as you go up, you see this about halfway through, and still kind of, this kind of, you don’t really, it doesn’t come together, and then when you come to the top, it all sort of clicks into space. And everything becomes very organized. And I was playing with this idea of when you, this sort of idea of a narrative is when you move around the piece it actually becomes something in space in front of your eyes as you move, and, you know, someone else who, I mean, the quintessential example of a sculpture, sculptor who did this is Bernini, where, you know, where you move just slightly to the left or slightly to the right by one inch, and you know Apolli, Apollo and Daphne turn into completely different things. So, I think I sort of learned how to be a sculptor along the way, actually, publically.
ADAM WEINBERG: And, um, and, you know, in the beginning you were doing the toilet paper works, you were actually making, making, I mean there was real facture in the sense, and, as opposed to assembling and collecting and gathering. I mean what was the, you know, what was the transition there for you?
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I don’t know, um, I don’t know if there’s a direct transition. I think in each sort of body of work that I’ve done, there’s always, there’s an edge between something that’s handmade or mass-produced, um, public or private, um, you know, solid or falling apart. And I mean try and, sort of try and locate a piece on that edge. So it can be very different, I think, in different works —
ADAM WEINBERG: To make it ambiguous.
SARAH SZE: To make it ambiguous. So some work may seem more found object-y, and, but how do you make it still feel like it’s intimate, in a way that it somehow displays behavior, that there’s a hand, or there’s a relationship created between the viewer and the object that’s surprising. And other work, will, a lot of it will be actually, you know, made by hand.
ADAM WEINBERG: How do you go about, um, collecting these materials, I mean do the materials come about where you just have a store (15:00) room and you just buy things and you add them to them, or do you go out shopping for your, um, for piece by piece?
SARAH SZE: Um, I think it’s both, I think that it’s, I sort of think of it like a palette, that grows and has this kind of Darwinian process where things will die out over the years, or things will stay. And usually I think that the way that they end up staying in is they have this sort of quality of sitting between many things, so they can formally work, they can work for color, they can work for texture, in that sort of painterly way I was thinking about, or, and they can work in terms of subject. So they can act like, their practical use becomes information.
ADAM WEINBERG: Right. Do you sometimes feel like something might be missing and that you then have to go out and find the things that are missing, and, you know, either because of color or form or, or, content, um?
SARAH SZE: Sure. I just did a, I just finished a piece at the High Museum in Atlanta, and I went down and I came home, and it needed more red, so I went to the closet and like found things that made sense and had red in it, brought a suitcase and put it in. So it can be that simple. Um, you know, should I, but I mean, it’s easier for me to talk about things that are right there, so, you know, so this piece, I mean this piece, this, this piece, it’s an interesting, I think it’s interesting, I’ve been, approached this in terms of materials, but, uh, it was a piece I did actually at the Asia Society for its reopening, and um, it, uh, I wanted to find a space that it would be discovered, um, that it would be found, that your experience of the piece wouldn’t be that it was on a pedestal, it was right next to the Rockefeller Collection of Ancient Works, and I wanted to really play off of this idea of something that was kind of not monumental, by nature. So it’s actually the hallway by the freight elevator. And in terms of materials, I, well, this goes back to the material question, I wanted it to be something that actually could be there, in some ways, you know, so, so the piece that you saw with the soap, a lot of the things were just things that were just in my pocket, or in my bag, then put out there. So that the jump is not so far, from art to life. So there wasn’t that much to deal with that would really be there that was from life, so, um, I started to make this out of the paint from the wall, so the whole piece was made, the idea was there it was a, sort of a natural occurrence that happened on site, and the piece would come from the peeling on the wall, and as you got closer, the scale of the piece became entirely different as you were sort of sucked into the work, but that it was almost as if there was a decay on the wall that turned into this event. And then in terms of materials, I wanted there to be this idea that there was different times where you got to the material, so, where you got to the piece, so that line that said —
ADAM WEINBERG: Right.
SARAH SZE: - the ‘Caution’ line, and the light, was almost as if it had been discovered already, but then the natural occurrence and that discovery, you see the hands mix. But in terms of any one of the objects, for example, so, the, let’s take the ruler, so the ruler to me was interesting because it was just a stupid comment on scale in a literal way, so that we look at this we don’t know what we’re looking at, but then when we look at it we know exactly what we’re looking at, uh, so it locates you when you’re dislocated. That a ruler could be bent and have the kind of speed of something like a futurist painting. Um, you know, but, you know, it’s just a plastic, ruler that’s bent. So it can be something very simple but then also have this kind of leap to something perhaps dynamic or spectacular.
ADAM WEINBERG: So, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about, about site, I mean, do you, when you’re offered an opportunity to do something, do you, are you assigned a site —
SARAH SZE: Right.
ADAM WEINBERG: - do you ask for certain sites, do you see your work as being site-specific or do you see yourself as just responding to the site, or all of the above?
SARAH SZE: So, um, usually, uh, usually my experience has been that people have offered me a choice of a site, not always, but definitely I think, I think of the site as almost like the way you, the way you start a canvas, and then I, the first thing I think about is how you’re gonna approach it, what’s the first thing you’re gonna see; once you move closer, how is that revealed. What’s the scale, what’s the use of the space, um, so definitely they, the decisions start in a very specific way, you know, you had asked me earlier about, about, uh, using exit signs and things that already exist, and I was interested in this idea of any space having, having sort of the requirement for emergency exits, for information that told you about how to move in, in, in a time, just very practical information about how you’re supposed to move through a space, (20:00) um, even maybe just having studied architecture, just requirements for space, and why they exist. So, uh, this is a piece that I, I was asked to do, again, for example, in this piece, they said, ‘You can do it anywhere you want in the museum, you have free reign,’ and they, it was kind of mind-boggling to me that they had, had their paintings, like this Delaney with a safety guard over the bottom of the painting, and then to hang actually an exit sign, this is in France, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, that they would have an exit sign hung, that’s actually lit, next to a painting, about four inches, so, and these were all over, so I actually put installations actually on the exit signs throughout, [laughter] throughout the, um, the, uh, the, uh, museum. You know, this is, to me this is an interesting example of how I will make very, very specific decisions about a site, and then, you know, people will say, ‘Well, can you actually move this, is it possible.’ And in the beginning I didn’t know, you know, when I first started making art as a graduate student, I just decided I was gonna make the work, I wasn’t gonna answer those questions, um, until they happened, and so when work was, was moved, and people actually daringly asked, ‘Can we own this, I want to own this,’ what I did was make a list of rules, you know, ‘You have to enter here, you need, what you need, you need to have this much of an approach, you need to have natural light, you need to have a corner, what are, what are required and then can it be translated.’ And to you know, surprising to me, this is another view of the same piece, um, it was surprising to me, so this piece was at a gallery in Chelsea, and this is the piece at the MCA in Chicago, and I actually liked the piece better in Chicago
- um, it was not made for the space, but there were, this space fit the requirements for it, you know, and -
ADAM WEINBERG: Is it the same piece?
SARAH SZE: It’s the same piece.
ADAM WEINBERG: I mean, do you think of it as the same piece.
SARAH SZE: Uh, it is exactly the same piece, so, it’s like (laughs) -
ADAM WEINBERG: Not in exactly the same place.
SARAH SZE: Yes, I mean, everything is, nothing is moved in the work, so, um, there’s not a cut in the wall, for example, oops, sorry, there’s not a cut in the wall here, which is something, you know, but I actually like it without it, so, so it was interesting this idea, and then also this idea of how do you make something feel specific, how do you make it feel like it happened the moment, um, you know, if you put one thing, like your plane ticket to Chicago with the date on it, everything gets read as having happened there. It’s interesting. Or if you put one line that connects to a door that would be impossible to have known was there, it somehow fixes the whole piece in the location.
ADAM WEINBERG: But you do see that there are better installations of the same piece.
SARAH SZE: Um, there, you know, it’s funny, I don’t know do you think this is a better installation? [laughter]
ADAM WEINBERG: Uh, not actually being in the space, it’s hard for me, but you said you preferred one, so, um, —
SARAH SZE: I like one —
ADAM WEINBERG: It’s just interesting, the idea that you take a piece, you respond to the location, you have certain requirements —
SARAH SZE: Right.
ADAM WEINBERG: - but at what point does it become a different piece, is what I’m curious about —
SARAH SZE: Yes, yes.
ADAM WEINBERG: Is it no longer the same piece, or therefore your judging is that different quality.
SARAH SZE: Well, I think in some ways, you know, I think, I used to think of it like when you take all of your things and you move, and to an entirely different location, it’s amazing how when you move to a new location it still feels like your own, in this very strange way, that your material, your things moved still maintain a very strong personality. That’s one way of thinking about it, and just a way that things really operate in the, in space. And another way is I love seeing shows in different museums, following installation of a show in different museums, because if you see, you know, the Calder show here and then you see it as SF MOMA, it is a different show —
ADAM WEINBERG: Absolutely.
SARAH SZE: - right, it’s an entirely different show. I mean in many way a lot of the ideas I’m thinking about are curatorial ideas, about how someone enters the space, how it reveals itself, what’s juxtaposed.
ADAM WEINBERG: So in a sense, then, you see your, you’re building in to the work itself all those variabilities. In other words, the constant is all of the changes as much as the constant elements that you have within it.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I think that’s right, yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: I mean, it seems like you’re allowing for all those chances. Because we were also talking earlier, what happens if a work has Q-tips in it, or certain match books, or things that are not available in ten or twenty years, and you have to replace it with different things, you know, how again does that change over time, because you’re saying they can be performed again.
SARAH SZE: Right.
ADAM WEINBERG: I mean it may be like music, where musical instruments are no longer available in the same way, is it still the same piece if you’re playing a harpsichord (25:00) versus a piano.
SARAH SZE: Right. I mean, we were, we were talking a little bit while people were sitting down about Sol LeWitt and his scores, and conceptually what it meant, and it was an interesting conversation, because, um, Adam was talking — well, you were talking about Sol LeWitt, you should probably talk about it yourself, but he was talking about how originally he had really, um, he had had this very sort of rational idea that you would have a score and it would get executed, but then as he saw them made, there were actually executions that he liked better. And then he made sort of either a requirement or a recommendation that very specific people that he trained could do the work. So in some ways it became about a formally tight piece, not a conceptually tight piece. I, I told Adam that when I was in graduate school I actually wrote my thesis on the life of work over time, and this idea of how different artists had conceptualized of how their work would survive over time. Um, you know, to me, the most, one of the most interesting people was Félix González-Torres, because he knew he was gonna die before he, um, finished, before he, you know, he was aware of his death, and so he went and he, um, he documented all of his work. And the thing that was interesting to me was that he documented each piece individually, not conceptually across the board. So you’d have a candy piece, um, two candy pieces that looked very similarly, but he would have them installed with very different directions, in my mind, conceptually. Um, and to me that was very freeing because I realized, you know, that I was ok, it sort of gave me permission to make any piece and then decide how it was going to be dealt with. And I think this is operatively true — we were talking about this
- because you take someone like, um, Dan Flavin, and, like, the bulbs are not made anymore, and how that is dealt with actually is, he wouldn’t even know, like, his work may become expensive enough so that people will fabricate those. It’s true, it’s just true, it’s a fact, right? So you can’t really determine how work is actually going to be preserved, um, over time. The hardest work that’s owned of mine, the biggest problem that’s come up, are ones that have video in it. And this is because the equipment – and those of you who have dealt with video know this – the equipment changes so radically. Polaroid, you know, people are actually, Adam and I, Adam brought this point up, that Polaroid is actually -
ADAM WEINBERG: Being refabricated.
SARAH SZE: Being refabricated —
ADAM WEINBERG: Even though the company doesn’t exist, really.
SARAH SZE: So, so, in some ways, is it, I think, you know, you give the most specific instructions you can, as an artist -
ADAM WEINBERG: And then you accept that it’s gonna change.
SARAH SZE: And then accept that it —
ADAM WEINBERG: Well I was thinking, because I was at the Barnes Foundation recently looking at a great Matisse painting, and they were talking about how all the yellows had completely changed color, but they couldn’t redo it, even though they know it had changed radically, but we’re still looking at Matisse, and maybe that’s true of all works of art, we’re looking at those works of art, and maybe this is a curatorial, probably not the artist’s problem, but we’re looking through the veils of time. I mean, it’s like the big debates they had about the Sistine Chapel, are you looking at the Sistine Chapel, we’re used to looking at it ‘dirty’ all these years, and then when they cleaned it up everybody said it looked too bright [laughter], you know, so there’s this whole thing about, about time and how it changes, but I think your work has so much of those questions of time embedded, because it’s not a singular object, but an object that has so much multiplicity to it that it constantly, to me, asks those questions.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I mean I think for me it’s supp, that anxiety is supposed to be on the surface of my work. You know, when you look at a, when you look at a, uh, Dan Flavin, you’re not thinking about ephemerality, but, you know, so, to me it was actually interesting to make work where you feared its existence, and, and, you feared whether it could survive. You know, I think the most common question, so now you can’t ask this question at the end [laughter], I think it’s every single lecture, someone asks, you know, ‘How, how long did it take you to put up, how long did it take you to come down? Does it exist still? How long was it up?’ And the fact that that question is asked is interesting to me, that you, that the fragility of the time that this either took to make, will it exist, that you sort of, that you have this anxiety around its existence, is actually, it should be on the surface of the work, I think.
ADAM WEINBERG: Right. But we always think of art as having, you know, hopefully having some kind of internal, um, presence, and that’s what, that’s one of the questions that I think your work always asks, is, you know, can it remain and how long can it remain and under what conditions. But, so, oh, this is the MIT piece.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I mean I put this in here, um, because, you know, Adam had asked about site specificity, and, uh, you know, again, this idea that in my mind I’m trying to sort of build it into the very experience of making or seeing the work, so this was, I was trying to figure out (30:00) how you make a permanent piece that’s totally flexible, um, that is in flux, that has this kind of viral quality to it, um, and that can kind of, almost like a kit, that you can bring to any site, and then it becomes, um, specific to the site. So I made this piece that was a fire escape that was basically scaled to a cat, so it came [laughter], so it’s like a kit, and it, it has three parts to it, it’s twelve of each part, so you have a ladder, a balcony, and a stair, and you bring that kit to any location and it can be put together, like an Erector set, to sort of be built around that site. I actually brought only one, um, image of it, this is at a dorm at MIT, so, and in theory, you can buy this and put it up, and you can make the decisions about how it climbs on a building, on an interior, on an exterior, um, and, and can be totally different at different sites. So just conceptually, this idea of, you know, how do you make a work that is always gonna be site specific. And I think that there are things in all of the pieces, you know, there are things, this kind of kit-like temporal quality, things on wheels, things that are clamped together, things that you feel like you can sort of put together, pack up, and put up again is really —
ADAM WEINBERG: Do it yourself sensibility.
SARAH SZE: Yes.
ADAM WEINBERG: So, um, I mentioned in my introduction the difference between scale and size, and I mean one of the things I’m always amazed by about your work is that on one hand I want to get down on my hands and knees and go up and look at every little detail of it, but the impossibility of doing that, except perhaps for the artist who put it out there to begin with, but just the minute quality that you’re dealing with, but yet you come in and you’re actually overwhelmed by the scale. And I just thought it would be helpful to understand for you, what’s the difference between scale and size as you understand it and what are you trying to do with those differences?
SARAH SZE: So, you know, I could answer that in many ways, but I will answer that in relation to this piece specifically, I think. Um, you know, I often am interested in this kind of radical shift in scale, and that almost takes out the middle ground, so that you have a very, very large view of something and then you go, shoot down to this, to this minutiae. One of the, at some point, I actually saw this very early on in my life, in a science class, was ‘Powers of Ten’, by, um, Charles and Ray Eames, and this, you know, this, it’s this sort of speeding up of shifts in scale. Um, this is a piece I did at SF MOMA, Sol LeWitt on the side, and, uh, you know, there are many things I was thinking about at the time. It’s a really, you know, in terms of this idea of reacting to a site, it’s a, you know, it’s a very rigorously symmetrical building, very didactic that way, in terms of symmetry, and I wanted to do a piece that had this quality of something that had happened very quickly in space. So these, sort of this, and that you didn’t understand it when you first got in, but you wanted to sort of get up to that location. So, just to do the radical shift in scale, this is what you see at one point in the piece. So you shift down very radically. To get there, you have to climb the stairs, um, and it’s actually, it’s a Jeep Cherokee that was sliced into five parts, and then, so I wanted to sort of transform it to the point where you didn’t rec, you didn’t understand, that wasn’t the first thing you understood about them. Again, I was playing with this idea of as you move through the space, the piece changes radically, as a night view, as a day view, um, and this is the back of the car, and that’s what you see as you get up close, and this is something you see just alone on the stair, um, you know, sort of a one-to-one view of it, and that this kind of intimacy, where your whole sense of your body changes, that the piece surrounds you —
ADAM WEINBERG: And changes as you move through it.
SARAH SZE: And it changes completely as you move through it.
ADAM WEINBERG: It’s very cinematic, really, I mean, because you’re kind of focusing on the detail of the person drinking the cup, and then the next thing you know —
SARAH SZE: Yes.
ADAM WEINBERG: - you’re going way back out there, coming way back in again.
SARAH SZE: Absolutely. I actually think a lot about the, about, uh, cinema. And about also that the, you know, if you’ve ever done editing, you know that all of the meaning becomes between those juxtapositions, right, so that these, the, it’s really the cut, it’s the in between space that creates the experience. So it’s like this anticipation, or the desire of seeing these moments, of one leaning to the next, I think that’s really crucial —
ADAM WEINBERG: And so are you pretty aware as people walk through it of the idea of trying to get them to make those shifts from large to small, I mean intuitively?
SARAH SZE: Yes, intuitively, and also, I mean, I think, I’m interested in this idea which I think happens with film, which is that you, um, you feel as if, you allow people to feel as if they’re wandering, but they’re actually very directed. Um, you know, I’ve talked about it about in terms of Japanese gardening, where there’s actually these locations where, in Japanese gardens, they’re made to mimic nature (35:00), so you feel like you’re on a kind of meandering walk, and there’s actually these locations where you look, there’ll be a step where you look down and when you look up it’s completely composed in front of you. Um, so, there’ll be, there’d be like a very distant landscape, but you feel as if it’s something you discovered yourself. So, very much this idea of, you know, again, and this goes back to a lack of boundaries, I was not that interested in installation art where there was, where there’s a curtain, or there’s a step, and you know, ‘Now I am actually entering art, and now I am leaving art.’ But that as a viewer, you, you find yourself in the middle of it somehow.
ADAM WEINBERG: But yet, I mean, what I’m amused of is the kind of, it’s the tensions between the idea that it seems as if it has a kind of random, open-ended quality, which there are aspects of; on the other hand, you’re totally controlling the experience, too, I mean very, very much thinking about it. I mean, it’s illusionism, you know, going back to the whole tradition of illusionistic painting and, um, sculpture.
SARAH SZE: Right, I mean, it’s a, really, this is a last detail, but I mean I think it’s a really, it’s a very fine, I think it’s a very fine line, um, to tread, in terms of, you know, for me, I mean the use of, I’m using the word ‘theatrical’ in a specific way
- but not to let, to always have it flip back to feeling very mundane, so that it doesn’t feel like -
ADAM WEINBERG: All really contrived, yeah.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, and that the spectacle is really, you’re making the spectacle as much as I am. That the jump is not, is, there’s a choice, you’re choosing whether to engage or not. Does that?
ADAM WEINBERG: Yeah.
SARAH SZE: I put these in because of, in terms of the scale shifts, just because, um, you know, scale shift you can literally see, but I think what’s also really important is, um, or the harder thing to play with is this idea of scale shifts in terms of um, um, intimacy, monumentality, emotional scale shift, I think, and that, to try to find something like a piece of toilet paper and actually invest it with a kind of emotional value. So, I put these in cause it’s sort of a much more kind of direct example of that, um, uh, and, uh, I was asked to do, actually I was asked to give a donation to a non-profit, and I didn’t have anything immediately available I thought could be auctioned, so I said to them, ‘Well I’ll do a portrait. You can auction a portrait, it’s gonna be on an eight, nine-and-a-half, so seven-and-a-half by eleven, piece of regular paper, it’s gonna be in pencil, it’s gonna be like a letter, and the, the, the person who buys this, it will be a portrait of them, or they can have it of someone else, and they should give me twelve of the most important events in their life. And that I will draw these.’ And so I drew them in a way where they, sort of, I made them up out of their descriptions, they tumbled, there was no hierarchy in terms of their experience, people gave me things that ranged from death to, you know, like washing their laundry, so it was very interesting that there was that, this kind of, this range. But, you know, it was conceptually about creating a relationship, and making it work, you know, um, in collaboration, what a portrait really is, um. Then the letter was completely destroyed, and they were, the person is anonymous. But it just, it was a more, sort of, you know, it’s a different way of looking at how scale shifts, I think work, um, in my work, so I put it in there.
ADAM WEINBERG: Uh, I wanted her to put in this piece. This is actually one of the, um, pieces that I first saw of yours, I think. This is the Berlin piece, isn’t it?
SARAH SZE: Yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: And I remember walking in and feeling like I had seen something quite radically different, um, and not having expected, knowing what to expect. And, um, you know, one of the things I was, I’m struck by, is how kind of dematerialized a lot of these pieces are, I mean it’s all this ephemeral materials. And I was thinking, you know, you were saying a little bit earlier, you referred to Richard Serra a little bit, and I was thinking how your work on one hand seems very opposite from a Richard Serra or a Judd, or a Donald Judd, or a Carl Andre, but then I was thinking about it actually as we were talking, and actually there’s an incredible light touch to Richard Serra’s work, despite the fact that it’s very heavily, heavy materials, very, involve gravity and weight and mass whereas yours is almost the opposite, but I’m curious, I mean, how do you see your work in relationship to a Richard Serra? You mentioned Serra earlier.
SARAH SZE: Um, you know, it’s interesting —
ADAM WEINBERG: Doesn’t look anything like it, obviously. Is it a reaction to that type of work?
SARAH SZE: Is it a reaction to…um, uh, no, I don’t think it’s a reaction to (40:00), directly. I think, um, you know, I think, uh, Richard is a, he’s, like I said, he can be, he’s a magician with materials, and I think that what’s interesting to me about him is there’s a kind of intense intimacy he has with metal, and with his materials. You know, there are amazing stories about his father working with metal, he worked in a metal yard as a, you know, as a, pretty young, so I think he has a very, like, he has an amazing ability to make something that’s quite monumental but also has a kind of fragility to it, in my own mind. Um, and, uh, it’s interesting, this, it was a huge compliment to me early on in that he saw that show, the, for me, what meant a lot to me, but he saw that show at Mary Boesky and he really, uh, he talked, he approached me and talked to me about what he thought was interesting in my work. And it was mostly about process, and about creating different kind of rules about making work. And not using work as a metaphor to illustrate something else, but that, but for the process itself to be the narrative, um, which I thought was interesting. I actually saw him, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, he made, he did a piece on site there, too, and seeing it install, it be installed on site and transform that space. I mean he’s also very much, uh, much of his work is of a site specific artist, and to see how he will transform space, I think that that’s something else that I think is actually, you know, whether it’s a light hand, a heavy hand, a large thing, a small thing, it’s more about actually —
ADAM WEINBERG: And it’s not a male-female kind of thing at all, from your perspective.
SARAH SZE: Not for me, what about you, what do you think? [laughter]
ADAM WEINBERG: I think I gave myself away. Why don’t we move on.
SARAH SZE: So, um, but this is the first piece you saw, yeah?
ADAM WEINBERG: Yes, that was the first one, I remember, um, I remember going in and I remember just the sense of being totally surrounded by it, and not quite knowing where to stand literally and metaphorically in relation to it, just, um, I’m just delighted by it, I mean, it’s something that I’ve wanted to see more. Happy that I have.
SARAH SZE: I mean the one thing that I would say that was interesting, this piece, sorry?
ADAM WEINBERG: Yeah, the tank element there?
SARAH SZE: No, I was gonna say that it was actually, there’s a crack in the wall that actually the piece followed, that lead the piece [laughter] and, um, it’s, it was in Berlin, the building doesn’t exist anymore, it’s right, uh, like right up against the wall, and it was actually the old academy of art, on the East side, and, um, when the wall came down, uh, it was in very bad shape, it had been bombed in World War II, um, and it was actually the studio of Albert Speer, who was Hitler’s architect. So it was a very haunted, very heavy place. And I did a lot of reading on him, and actually it was interesting to me, in terms of this, the questions of ephemerality, kind of bizarre, you know, in the context of kind of who he was, you know, very kind of, with very evil intentions, but what was interesting about him and, you know, sort of the whole aesthetic, um, the way they use aesthetics, with politics, which was very, you know, strong, with a strong hand. He, he was, uh, involved in this studio, in designing Germania, which was supposed to be the capital of Germany, you know, that they were gonna plan. And what he did was he studied the ruins of great civilizations, to build the future Germania. And this idea, the incredible, you know, hubris of that, but also this idea that thinking about actually what, making a great ruin ahead of its own time was actually a kind of amazing idea to me.
ADAM WEINBERG: So are there aspects in this work that at all refer to Speer, or to the context?
SARAH SZE: Actually, yeah, when I was thinking of this idea of a kind of insane ambition that was actually growing beyond its own capacity to hold itself, so this whole piece, actually, if you remember, it had an arm that was blowing, so the whole thing was about to fall over —
ADAM WEINBERG: Like it was about to fall down, right.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, which was a kind of idea that I thought of — it’s also this idea of something being incendiary, that it was all matches, that could fall apart, that — so this little arm here, uh, it’s right here, this is a match box that’s being blown by this fan, which actually shakes the entire thing. That was pretty early on in making work, and I, I, uh, wasn’t sure it was gonna stay up [laughter] but it did.
ADAM WEINBERG: And this piece is —
SARAH SZE: This, you had, you know, you had asked me about this decision to scale up, because a lot of my early work was really, in many ways was about, um, you know, I was really interested in this idea of the experience of seeing as being one of discovery, that you weren’t, you found it, and you literally found it in a place where it wasn’t presented to you. And so, um, so, it was a big transition to make something, you know, I could have gone to the space (45:00) and sort of done it in the corners, and the closets, and I decided, um, this is a Jean Nouvel building, it’s the Cartier Foundation in Paris, and I decided with this piece, they gave me the whole ground floor, that I would scale the work up and have a conversation with the building that was actually, where the voice of the work was actually much higher. And so, you know, Berlin was sort of the beginning of that, and then this piece, which was all made out of ladders, and the reason I chose to use, work with ladders was that it was a found object that actually literally dealt with the scale of your body in relationship to architecture, that everything about it, sort of like the ruler in the last piece, but everything about it told you about, um, scale. But, so you sat in this location where you couldn’t figure out how far away or how big something was, but then you actually knew exactly how big it was, because you know what your body’s relationship —
ADAM WEINBERG: And so you envisioned it both as a night piece and a day piece, by —
SARAH SZE: Yes.
ADAM WEINBERG: I mean, so you were composing it at night and thinking about lighting and the whole idea of the kind of storefront quality of it as well as what it would be like when the light was gone.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, absolutely, yeah, from that first, you had that from the first one, yeah. I mean, I think most, a lot of my work has this, because it’s lit internally, so, you know, this is again an idea that was sort of away from, in my mind, away from the theatrical, that everything in the piece was part of the piece. That it wasn’t about that light there lighting it, or, you know, um, anything to do with the building, but that it was actually a self-sustaining system. It was also this idea of, you know, this question, this basic question of why does something become valuable. And I wanted to play with this idea of a work of art actually having its own life support system, so that the air, the water, the, um, you know, the light was all actually part of a system, that, and therefore was fragile, and therefore could fail.
ADAM WEINBERG: Right. Oh, yes, this one. Now, you, you’ve mentioned in the past that you, you know, you admired the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, you know, the artist who was perhaps best known for his piece ‘Splitting,’ when he kind of sawed the house in half in New Jersey, um, I think that’s how most people know the work. Um, I was very interested in your connection to Gordon Matta-Clark and architecture and the idea of cutting into the supports and, and the relationship is something you still do in your work a lot.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I mean, it’s also interesting, having, father painter, studied architecture, comes to sculpture, um, he, um, and I’m father architect, studied painting, I mean, but so, but he does, I think he comes to that, to that intersection in an interesting way. He also, I mean, this isn’t actually the work that I brought, but he also did that really beautiful piece about, um, where he bought the little corner, he bought all the little plots of land —
ADAM WEINBERG: Right, exactly.
SARAH SZE: - I for, you know —
ADAM WEINBERG: It was the left-over pieces of land from sales, where it might be a strip that’s one foot wide, and about six blocks long, that type of thing.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, yeah and that was the piece. And that, also this sort of influential idea, these sort of left over spaces and, you know, that went unnoticed, and what, were the scraps between the two lots, but you know I was thinking about conical intersects, you know, and about, in this piece, just about how to frame, how I can break through space, how you can create a new frame, how architecture can be dissolved, and this was in a group show that went between the upstairs space and the lower space of a gallery, so, um, I made this hole in the floor, and actually it was a group show and they put the, they put a Gordon Matta-Clark right next to it, which was great. But so the hole went through the floor, um, and the piece of, the piece of floor went to the bottom and hit down here [laughter], and actually it was all on a pulley system at the front, I don’t have the images, but at the front there was a little pulley system, the fan went back and forth on the upstairs and the pulley system dipped a piece of paper and ink that went up and down, and the ink went, slowly grew back along the string, and up, up the wall.
ADAM WEINBERG: Does your work make you laugh sometimes, I mean when you’re actually doing it —
SARAH SZE: Yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: - do you, I mean, do you find yourself fully amused as, you know, because I just find that there’s an incredible sense of humor in your light touch, and I have to say there are many times when I’ve smiled or even laughed at elements within your pieces, too. So I’m wondering, do you see that element of humor and joke as you’re going along? Not that it’s a joke, but I mean that there’s that, that kind of, that edge.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, yeah. No, no, it is, it’s all a joke. [laughter] No, I think that it’s so important, to me. And definitely it, I mean, it’s only funny when it’s a discovered funny in the moment that gets translated, I think. You know, I think that’s crucial, the, you know, what we’re talking about, the rules and surprise; the best things that happen in a work are actually the things that you didn’t, you didn’t know were gonna happen, right? But I think humor is crucial in terms of play, and in terms of, play, in every sense of that word, whether it’s, you know, giving (50:00) room for play, whether it’s setting up a system and breaking it, and I think, I think humor always has a kind of subversion in it, whether you recognize it immediately, it also has a submersive, sort of subversive underbelly to it.
ADAM WEINBERG: And you were talking about systems and kind of closed systems and open systems, and you’ve always been kinda interested in the relationship between kinda macro and micro systems, and I thought maybe if you could show us a few images and talk us, talk us through a little bit about the thinking there.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I mean we, you know, we were talking about systems earlier and we were talking a little bit about um, this idea of, you know, the idea of making a work that’s actually like a live experiment, that actually has behaviors, or that’s modeling behaviors. Um, and so this is a work I did um, in Venice, for the Venice Biennale in 1998, and um, when I, it was actually one of the first sites where they gave me a site and they didn’t let me see it. And I looked at the plans, and there was this small closet where they kept all of the cleaning supplies, so I decided to use that um, and then have, open the window on the other side. But the thing that’s interesting to me looking back on this piece is the way that I did it was that I put in lamps first, and then I had this idea that the work actually had to sort of flee to these lamps’ locations to actually survive. Um, almost like it had the behavior of something that needed, you know, to support its life. And then it went out the window, pointed out the window, and this window, I, it was an old scala [?] window that existed that they’d covered, and then it had an arm that went out into the lake, or into the canal, I should say, and it had a buoy on it, so whenever the, uh, boats went by it hit back on the window itself, so it had this sort of like —
ADAM WEINBERG: It’s a whole series of chain reactions, one thing leads to the next thing, which leads to the next thing, and there’s a little bit of the Rube Goldberg quality to it, where everything leads to the next thing, and it takes you through the whole series of incidents.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, and just that the piece itself was sort of relying on the very random event of somebody going by in the canal to, to work. So it could even be seen as like a model for actual movement on the canal. Um, but this idea of, you know, of modeling, and modeling behavior, it was interesting, because, um, there was a, I thought a really nice observation made by Arthur Danto, he said to me, ‘You know, your work is not like architectural models, it’s much more like scientific models, because an architectural model is built, you know, to actually be a stand-in for something to be built, but your work actually —’
ADAM WEINBERG: Actually is in the environment itself.
SARAH SZE: It’s the environment itself, and it’s modeling a behavior, it’s showing behavior itself, it’s showing how things work; it’s not to be re-built. And so I took that as a, it was really an interesting comment to me, so I decided to actually make a model, to do sort of the dumbest thing and try making a scientific model. So I had this idea to try and make a planetarium. And at first, I thought, this is really, it’s so, so hokey, to make like actually a globe that you, you, that you recognize. But I liked this idea, that one was that the work itself was almost like a device, that it worked like a mechanism, like the sculpture wasn’t just a sculpture, it was a sculpture to produce this, this kind of absurd sculpture to produce just that as a projection. And also that when you moved into it, it had this very different feeling of when you saw a globe but —
ADAM WEINBERG: From the outside and then go within it.
SARAH SZE: To go within it was such a non-intuitive thing, that you were sheltered, and you —
ADAM WEINBERG: Well it’s kind of science fiction, too.
SARAH SZE: Yes, absolutely. Yup. And then this was just a really classic model, of, I mean, example of a model, so this is just called ‘Model of a Habitat, for a Habitat,’ and it’s on the High Line, um —
ADAM WEINBERG: Did any birds actually go in?
SARAH SZE: Tons. [laughter]
ADAM WEINBERG: They did. I never saw any with the birds inside. But they did.
SARAH SZE: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to me because it literally was an experiment, you know, we didn’t, didn’t know whether they would or not. Um, I did a lot of research and the people who were right, said ‘Urban birds are scrappy, if you put out —’ cause, you know, they’ll come —
ADAM WEINBERG: They’ll eat anything.
SARAH SZE: - they’ll basically eat out of your hand, yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: New York birds!
SARAH SZE: Yeah, New York birds. [laughter] So, and, you know, even though people were walking right by, if there was food in it, it was, you know, it was completely clustered, covered, and the biggest problem was what these, what the Audubon Society said, which was that the birds would eat the feed in about an hour. And also, they’d know, so they actually, everyone — you know, everyone
- the birds all knew [laughter] -
ADAM WEINBERG: The birds are smarter —
SARAH SZE: Than the people. Yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: Of course.
SARAH SZE: I can talk more about it, but we should probably go, should we go to the next one? Yeah.
ADAM WEINBERG: Either way. That’s great. Yeah.
SARAH SZE: I mean, the one thing that was, the two things that you brought up here, I mean, this play with scale architecturally was interesting to me, um, and that the High Line, also, (55:00) I really wanted, I think the High Line is such an incredible, you know, urban experiment, so successful, that I also had this question of ‘Does it need art?’ You know, it is, in some ways, it is in my mind a grand —
ADAM WEINBERG: So what did you decide?
SARAH SZE: - art project. Well I decided, one, that it was, that it framed something that already existed and something that existed there was this kind of incredible reality of urban wildlife, and so to make something where, you know, people took – this was apparently the most photographed location on the High Line. And it was all pictures of birds. Those birds exist a block away. But to create a place where you were like, ‘Oh my god, this is incredible, there’s a bird here,’ [laughter] to create that frame for something that already existed was very interesting to me. And then the second thing was to get people to engage, the, you know, I wanted it to play on this idea of a shooting space in Manhattan —
ADAM WEINBERG: It has a very perspectival quality, I remember, it’s really almost like one point perspective, and the next exploded —
SARAH SZE: Yeah. And that was to play on this, I think, one of the other things that you don’t realize about moving in Manhattan is constantly having a choice on the grid, and that this is such an unusual space, because it’s like a Midwestern highway, where you just walk, and that’s all you do. And I think the success of the High Line is actually not only what they did but what they didn’t do; which is there’s nothing to do there, and that is an incredible thing in Manhattan. [laughter] You know, and so, so —
ADAM WEINBERG: Well, there’s art, so there’s something to do.
SARAH SZE: (laughs) Now there’s something to do. Yeah, but a lot of people didn’t even —
ADAM WEINBERG: Do it.
SARAH SZE: No, but didn’t even think this was art, which is nice, too, right? But so I wanted to play on this idea of a trajectory. But the last thing that I thought was successful that I don’t think people necessarily even realize, is that it’s bisected, I mean it’s obvious but it’s bisected by the promenade, and so you have to engage. So it’s not like this plop art on the side, which is so, you know, that you walk by —
ADAM WEINBERG: You walk through, yeah.
SARAH SZE: - you walk through it. And that was I think crucial to the solution.
ADAM WEINBERG: Well I felt we had to at least talk about the piece that you did here, which was actually right out in that empty space, [laughter] you can all turn to your left, but I thought maybe you could just talk to us about how this piece came about and also, this, to me in some ways was a little bit of a return to the earlier work in the sense that you were now looking down on it, like a, um, two-dimensional, uh, composition.
SARAH SZE: Yeah, I, uh, I think that this is such a crazy and amazing architectural decision, to, you know, on this avenue to push back the building and have a moat that you cross over to get into the building. And, um, uh, then to create this underground space in Manhattan is such, it’s a very, yeah, it’s very unusual, and it’s amazing that they, they got it done, right? And but I think the one thing that probably happened is that because of, probably just for safety reasons, the walls are high, and so a lot of people don’t even realize that they’re coming in on a bridge, um, and so I really wanted to play, to make people look over the edge, and to really, to really play with the idea that this incredible space, that is dug out in the middle of Manhattan and below ground. So the whole idea of this piece was sort of to play on this idea of the skin of the pavement, and then what’s below it, and this idea also that, you know, you have, when you’re walking down the street in Manhattan and then there’s some electrical problem, and they pull back the pavement, and it’s this insane, um, you know, underworld that you realize that we’re functioning or not functioning with, to sort of play on that idea. There’s this -
ADAM WEINBERG: It’s like skin.
SARAH SZE: Yes, it’s like a skin, I mean, there’s this beautiful idea by Kazuo Ohno who’s this, who’s a Butoh dancer, that there are three spaces, a very Butoh idea, but that there are three spaces in the world: there’s outside of the skin — and they’re equal — there’s the skin, and there’s below the skin. And this idea that the skin and below the skin, you know, are, and the skin particularly is equal to anything else is a very interesting idea to me, cause we’re so focused o