Sarah Sze gardens on the grandest scale. In her latest exhibition – and first with Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York – she grew continents from toothpicks and paper scraps, stars from light bulbs and mirrors. Her installations don’t just inhabit the places they fill, they transform them, like a Frederick Law Olmsted park or the landscapes of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
In The Uncountables (Encyclopedia) (all works 2010), a sprawling piece that stretched knickknacks, plants, lamps, fossils, milk cartons and tools across nearly 15 metres of floor and off-kilter shelving, Sze fashioned a kind of Pangaea. Different sections of the installation – marked by shifts in colour, angle and content – felt like tectonic plates that subduct or collide, giving rise to ledges, ladders and supports. The different zones offered various climates, lights and perspectives, while nestling together so perfectly that the possibility they weren’t always this way seemed as ridiculous as California falling into the sea.
Upstairs, in the second floor’s main gallery, Landscape for the Urban Dweller (Horizon Line) hung both mobile-like from a skylight and built its way up from the floor to the ceiling like a rainforest. Though the sculpture included many of the same household objects and office supplies as The Uncountables, here colliding planes were swapped for dangling lines, and the tension of a taught string twitching in a fan’s breath cultivated a palpable energy that animated the piece.
As deft as she is at manipulating the tensions of space, Sze’s fascination with the power of illumination carried the day. Whether natural, electrical or ingeniously reflected – as in Never Enough (Projector), in which an impossibly low-fi video was projected onto a piece of paper, and 360 (Portable Planetarium), a kind of pod-chair laser show – the artist manages to control, display and manipulate light in a busier environment than Dan Flavin and his pals ever imagined, and with equally demonstrative results.
Perhaps, just as plants are an oblique testament to the awesome power of the sun, Sze’s strange gardens are first and foremost a nod to light. Or maybe, and more likely, she has simply found a way to make little sculptural ecosystems, filled with energy and alive in space; a true pleasure to behold.
First published in Issue 136