Every thing in its right place


The Sarah Sze exhibition is extremely fragile. Please do not touch the works. Children must be accompanied by an adult and we would appreciate it if you could take them by the hand. Thank you for your understanding.1 Note to gallery visitors at entrance to Sarah Sze installation, Cartier Foundation, Paris, 1999.

New Yorker Sarah Sze makes intricate, soaring architectural assemblages from brightly coloured plastic, fluorescent tubes, clamps, household objects, light fittings and houseplants. Even the details in her sculptures have details. Every thing in its right place, 2002–03, is one of her most important works and, installed in Coles Court at the National Gallery of Victoria: International it is central to the inaugural exhibition, world rush _4 artists, and subsequently has been acquired for the Gallery (fig. 1). Every thing in its right place has been shown once before, at the São Paulo Biennale in 2002 and Sze has substantially reconfigured the work for the NGV.

All Sze’s installations are extraordinarily ambitious, constructed with great, fastidious precision, so her output is relatively small compared with many other artists. Despite this, the apparently fragile but user-friendly beauty of Sze’s giant structures, their spectacular, spreading forms, and their low-tech/hi-tech, model-building virtuosity have quickly gained a major international reputation.

This essay argues that Every thing in its right place, whilst deeply attuned to the present moment, exists in an integral and profound relationship to the history of painting – in particular to the painting of Jackson Pollock, whose great late work, Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, 1952, is also in Australia, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia (fig. 4). This relationship is mediated by the scatter works of late 1960s American minimalist artists, especially those of Carl André and Barry Le Va. In turn, Every thing in its right place contributes to a new, disruptive understanding (even overturning) of site specificity in installation art.

Probing the edges of sustainability

Immediately on graduation from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1996, and just after her 1996 SoHo Annual exhibition, Sze quickly attracted national and international attention. This led to her first solo museum show in 1999, at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, then during the same year, she participated in the Venice Biennale and also produced a spectacular Cartier Foundation installation traversing the whole of Jean Nouvel’s glass-cube building in Paris. In 2001 she constructed her first major outdoor piece – which resembled a futuristic archaeological dig as much as a model ruined city – at Bard College in upstate New York. Her 2002 commission for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was her first permanent installation in a museum. In 2003 she constructed another outdoor installation, this time for the sunken courtyard underneath the entrance to the Whitney Museum in New York, a site that was famously filled with tyres by Claes Oldenberg decades ago. As New York writer Jeffrey Kastner remarks:

Through all of these developments, however, Sze’s essential conceptual framework remained the same – to produce works that probe the edges of their own functional and material sustainability; to explore, as she says, ‘the tension between what is operative and what is idea’.2 J. Kastner, ‘Sarah Sze: Life inside Life’, in world_ rush, 4 artists (exh. cat.), M. Bal et al., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 144.

 Her installations quickly became the focus of her practice; as a result, she has had comparatively few dealer gallery shows but has made several installations that depend upon the large architectural scale of art museums. In Chicago and Venice her works cascaded through the architectural membranes, through walls and windows. As Sze notes:

I was always interested in the scale shift; taking things that are very small and making them have a presence beyond their physicality. Also, with the scatter-pieces, they dominated the space and you couldn’t move into it. And as time went on, I wanted to make the pieces more dynamic in terms of the viewer’s ability to move through them. And within that I then actually started to create these smaller spaces, within the larger-scale structures that get inhabited in that way.3 Sarah Sze, quoted in Kastner. p. 148.

The trajectory of Every thing in its right place is quite different to most of her earlier works. It is vertical – in the shape of a column or a space-mission launching pad. In both the São Paulo and Melbourne incarnations, the piece accommodates itself to unusual, multi-level atrium spaces, according to both buildings’ divided architectural levels. The result, naturally, is that the work also reveals itself in different perspectives from floor level to level. Every thing in its right place is consequently a choreographed and episodic experience, for it is consciously organised in sections, like the chapters of a book. Reinstallation, though, takes a considerable amount of time and adjustment, producing a substantially new work. The artist notes, ‘The second time I do it, I’ve figured it out and that’s maybe when it’s at its best.’4 Sze, quoted in Kastner, p. 151.Taken down and stored in archival boxes and crates, the work hardly exists from one site to another, except as raw materials, as an archive governed by the organising principles of the artist’s meticulous instructions and notes. It can be installed by Sze in a new location over a period of weeks but, with care, is more easily repeatable in the same location provided that everything is kept in its right place.

Site specificity

Sarah Sze, along with other important artists of her generation, forces us to rethink the high value we place on site specificity, undoing the connection between installation art, memory and place. Most obviously her structures are totally dependent upon the particular spaces in which they are installed: they are attached to balconies, ceilings, windows and walls, wherever clamps can be fixed. Although in low light her installation resembles a weightless shower of stars or a falling comet, it lives like a parasite in the corners and interstices of the atrium, supplementing and supplanting the host which, in both São Paulo and Melbourne, has been an austere, late-modernist, ceremonial space. Beyond the work’s immediate impression of weightlessness and fantasy – a frozen gesture – nothing is randomly placed. Sze’s model-making methodology is both practical and structural. She makes sections in her studio, combining prefabricated parts according to exact specifications and diagrams on-site, supplementing these with elements sourced on location, like a film director looking for props. Her works are carefully crated, tagged and marked for reassembly, and are definitely able to be exhibited repeatedly. They are, taking earth-artist Robert Smithson’s term, non-sites. They are not site-specific installations of the type that were familiar in the early 1990s, in works like those of Ann Hamilton which aimed to trigger repressed memories and forgotten associations specific to the history of the place of exhibition.5 See the incisive, biting critique of cultural authenticity based on the valorisation of place in M. Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass., 2002; I draw on Kwon’s sceptical, counter-intuitive argument throughout this essay. 

The multitude of small parts in Sze’s Every thing in its right place shifts us away from a critical reflection upon the conditions of viewing – the panoramic spectatorship of minimalism – in favour of inspection-mode self-consciousness, a sense-heightened version of pack-rat collecting. Miwon Kwon is correct to observe:

Minimalism’s effort to expand the viewer’s field of vision, which was equated with the expansion of the viewer’s critical consciousness of the art-viewing experience, was predicated on certain formal strategies or interdictions that disallowed intimacy.6 M. Kwon, ‘The other otherness: The art of Do-Ho Su’, in Do-Ho Suh (exh. cat.), ed. L. G. Corrin, Serpentine Gallery,London, 2002, p. 11.

Sze’s works are minimalist in genealogy, but insist on intimacy. We can try vainly to straitjacket Sze’s work into the obvious dialectic of politicised public-versus-private space, but this reduces her project and our experience to an allegorical illustration of a concept more properly expressed in words, and one more likely to have been relevant in the early 1990s than now. The binary opposition ignores the deliberate but painstaking site-adaptability of Sze’s works, which shape-shift each time they are reinstalled, just as Every thing in its right place consists of the same ur-work but is configured differently – is a different sculpture – in its relocation from São Paulo, where it was first exhibited, to Melbourne. And the limitations of having to choose between social criticality and minimalist phenomenology are obvious, faced with Sze’s syncretic, environmental, Merzbau assemblage.

The problem of interpretation

The sheer aesthetic impact of Everything in its right place presents the contemporary critic with a major problem for, in the interpretation of art, we have come to focus on uncovering the fields of power that images occupy in our spectacle-dependent culture, rather than on the specificity of a work’s aesthetic effect, or its beauty. We have come to expect that art is subordinate to ideas. There are two issues of interest here that Sze’s work forces us to confront. First, though a wide and important list of contemporary or modernist writers and artists has written on the refusal to disclose, we, by and large, expect serious art to address issues, an expectation that we have gained through the deep impact of postmodern theory.7 Barbara Stafford has written eloquently against the image as illustration; literary theorist Leo Bersani has explained Beckett, Resnais and Rothko through secrecy and their refusal of identification; film director Jean-Luc Godard has written about critical and literal distance in connection with the refusal to psychologise characters (see L. Bersani & U. Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais, Cambridge, Mass., 1993; B. Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, Cambridge, Mass., 1997,5; J.-L. Godard, ‘Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard: tome 1, 1950–1984’, Cahiers du cinéma revised edn, ed. A. Bergala, Paris, 1998; Godard, ‘tome 2, 1984–1998’; see also M. Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, Chicago, 1999).Second, even if we insist that art means something to do with truth, it follows that the link between beauty, truth and art is not necessarily going to be straightforward and direct. In a remark of dense acuity, Los Angeles critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes:

The contemporary art world is by and large an economy (with more than one currency) that pretends to be Nietzschean, and thus escape the eighteenth century’s sins of arrogance – for example originality and disinterest – but is in fact Hegelian. The discourse in charge of contemporary art world discourses is a new – original but not disinterested – application of Hegel, which has substituted for the art object and the aesthetic a cultural object meant and judged as an articulation, through a rhetoric obligatorily that of demystification or appropriation, of a historical, or nowadays anthropological (i.e. Hegel inverted and apologetic) idea, as image, of the spirit of the age.8 J. Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, New York, 1999, p. 41.

This is a long but important quote, and I am reluctant to fully admit its unfashionable moral: that aesthetic impact can’t be written off as outdated, depoliticised, Greenbergian formalism. First, the eighteenth century that Gilbert-Rolfe is tilting at is the eighteenth century of Kant and Hegel. The epithet ‘Hegelian’ carries a definite charge, connoting art that thinks. For Gilbert-Rolfe this epithet is negative, signifying over-determination, apology, and loss. In effect, when we go to see a major survey exhibition nowadays, we expect to see video, we expect to see installations like Sze’s, but we do not expect to see beauty. When we eventually see a gorgeous image, as we do when we see Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films or Sze’s shimmering construction, we are suspicious because we habitually expect, instead, to confront the major tropes of the later 1990s, which still dominate contemporary art and legitimise emerging artists (even in 2003) and which are both Hegelian and apologetic, veering towards an anti-visual puritanism. The expectation is that we will see a list of such themes performed competently, but we do not see these tropes played out once more in Sze’s work at all.9 Such a list definitely includes diaristic intimacy, humorous though not necessarily ironic documentations of the quotidian, everyday, sociological or anthropological studies tending towards the PC but tinged with ethnic exoticism and reflections upon the self, in complicity with or opposition to the art system.

Instead, Every thing in its right place shows a minimalist intimacy that replaces narrative identification, so that a visual narrative is split or fragmented like an animation, in absolute contrast to minimalism’s refusal of identification and its insistence on place. The site specificity of Sze’s work lies exactly in its nomadism and its aesthetic impact, its ability to be adapted to a second site’s specificity. Every thing in its right place is, in effect, a doppelganger of an ur-work, ghostwritten by its ordering principles, its code, and tagged by the watermark that is its particular architectural location. The site specificity of Sarah Sze’s works is therefore best understood in the following way: in her art, the overarching structures of collection and models create environments where narratives and nostalgias intersect as property and space but affect us through the flickering effect of beauty. Modernism ended, but postmodernism has finished as well.

Scatter-pieces

The backdrop to Every thing in its right place is the terminal period of modernist art – the period of transition from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, 1952, to Carl André’s installation at Dwan Gallery, Scatter piece, 1967, in which the artist’s action the dropped small pieces of plastic from a sack held over his head) amounts, like Jackson Pollock’s dripping, to the renunciation of gesture and touch (for both were overridden by gravity and chance), giving way in turn to the reinscription of human presence (for the scale of the plastic piece’s scatter is human-sized).10 See B. Reise, ‘“Untitled 1969”: A footnote on art and minimal stylehood’, Studio International, London, vol. 177, no. 910, April 1969, p. 170. In this way André’s and Pollock’s techniques – the indexical way they made their works – undermined and asserted a representational practice. As Norman Bryson observes, Pollock renounces control over form through the flung mark, but recovers another form of control – his authorial function – by making the abandonment by the remote control of the drip his very

own style.11 See N. Bryson, ‘The Gaze in the Expanded Field’, in Vision and Visuality: Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 2, ed. H. Foster, New York, 1999, p. 113; I disagree with Bryson that Zen painters’ flung brushmarks are any less of a style than Pollock’s drips. Los Angeles critic M. A. Greenstein kindly alerted me to Bryson’s article when I was needlessly attempting to reinvent the same cross-cultural wheel through Tibetan Mahayana. For contrasting perspectives on similar issues of performativity and style in Pollock’s painting, see A. Jones. ‘The “Pollockian Performative” and, the Revision of the Modernist Subject’, in Body Art: Performing the Subject, Minneapolis, 1998; see also C. A, Jones, ‘The Romance of the Studio and the Abstract Expressionist Sublime’, in Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, Chicago, 1996. In Blue Poles this – the oscillation between the field of drips and the quasi-figural poles – is the cause of great frustration and tension. Sze’s own concision and virtuosity in Every thing in its right place, and its reverse – the uncanny presence of everyday objects, pot-plants, Paperclips and personal fans – are not accidental nor incidental effects, but are connected backwards to the unified field of randomised marks and the simultaneously iconic and indexical poles of Blue Poles. Trained as a painter, Sze now assembles thousands of small scale, everyday objects into drawings in space. She notes:

I had very formal training in painting, and on some level I think of the whole piece as a canvas and the process of building the works as very painterly. It involves a formal understanding of colour, movement, edge, composition. It’s also painterly in the sense that its improvisational – you put down a mark and then decide whether or not to keep it, and what’s most incidental often turns out to be the most exciting. I’m interested in those things that are incidental but then chosen, like a drip on a de Kooning. I want there to be a sense of spontaneity in the mark, in the placement of things, so there’s an energy. I’m also really interested in what sculpture can do that painting can’t. But the formal process essentially comes from an understanding of painting.12 Sze, quoted in Kastner, p.145. See Bryson ‘Expanded Field’, p. 101. I have adapted Bryson’s suggestive argument in these paragraphs to Sze’s work.

In effect, she is saying that her looping architecture unhesitatingly disfigures its figural sub-images, opening the work to global configurations of force, but, like Pollock and André, the performance of the work is the means to an end rather than a celebration of process. Sze is aware of this; she remarked to Jeffrey Kastner, ‘People sometimes ask if they can open the galleries and have people come in and watch me make it – I’m not interested in me being part of the performance, but I am interested in it as a performative gesture’.13 Sze, quoted in Kastner, p. 146. Her fields proceed through the defined logic of the scatter-piece: we don’t know what the words of the sentence will add up to and the experience, like that of mentally decoding the spatial layers of Blue Poles, is like reading a very long sentence word by word. Figuration and abstraction take on an uncanny, reciprocal quality; each is fully implicated in the other.

The writer Thomas Crow lays out the stakes involved in his essay on painting’s reincarnation:

Over the last thirty years, nearly every major turn in advanced art – from the Minimalist object to the abject scatter piece – has announced itself as a defiance of demands for wholeness and integrity of form; each therefore required a strong precursor against whose claims to coherence and self-sufficiency the new might be measured. No mode of art was more easily cast in this role than painting … The aesthetic idealist perceives a great continuity ‘from Altamira to Pollock’; the postmodernist critic counters by declaring that ‘painting’ was an invention of bourgeois hegemony, the pretensions of which now collapse in the face of mechanical reproduction.14 See T. Crow, ‘Ross Bleckner, or the Conditions of Painting’s Reincarnation’, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven, 1996, p. 127.

There are two elements to note here: first, as Crow says, one set of possibilities now fails to convince; second, new orthodoxies may replace the old, but they immediately provoke challenges to their own painfully won hegemony. We’d expect the precursor – maybe not painting, but definitely what it signifies, which is the aesthetic affect – to come back into play. And it does, through combining anachronistic languages, like those identified by Rosalind Krauss in connection with intermedia (art that works across and between different media), and through the economy of aesthetic affect that is, in Lacan’s phrase, the Beauty Effect.15 J. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, the Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960, edited J.-A. Miller, trans. D. Porter, New York, 1986, p. 281. In another paragraph, Lacan writes, ‘With the Dutch painters people began to realize that any object may be the signifier by means of which that reflection, mirage, or more or less unbearable brilliance we call the beautiful starts to vibrate’ (Seminar, p.297).

Sze’s installations are virtually unique in contemporary art on account of their microcosmic virtuosity, complexity and humane intimacy, as well as their macrocosmic suggestiveness and ambition. Her work communicates to audiences way beyond the art world. It is possible to many things into Every thing in its right place – for example, that Sze has a strong commitment to the social and cultural issues of our time, particularly to the tension between individual and collective power – but we definitely cannot, and do not need to, pin these down. In Every thing in its right place, we can picture our own lines of critical enquiry and imagination, and we can have both coexist, together, at the same time.

Charles Green, Adjunct Senior Curator of 20th and 21st Century Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).

Notes

1     Note to gallery visitors at entrance to Sarah Sze installation, Cartier Foundation, Paris, 1999.

2     J. Kastner, ‘Sarah Sze: Life inside Life’, in world_ rush, 4 artists (exh. cat.), M. Bal et al., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 144.

3     Sarah Sze, quoted in Kastner. p. 148.

4     Sze, quoted in Kastner, p. 151.

5     See the incisive, biting critique of cultural authenticity based on the valorisation of place in M. Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass., 2002; I draw on Kwon’s sceptical, counter-intuitive argument throughout this essay.

6     M. Kwon, ‘The other otherness: The art of Do-Ho Su’, in Do-Ho Suh (exh. cat.), ed. L. G. Corrin, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002, p. 11.

7     Barbara Stafford has written eloquently against the image as illustration; literary theorist Leo Bersani has explained Beckett, Resnais and Rothko through secrecy and their refusal of identification; film director Jean-Luc Godard has written about critical and literal distance in connection with the refusal to psychologise characters (see L. Bersani & U. Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais, Cambridge, Mass., 1993; B. Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, Cambridge, Mass., 1997,5; J.-L. Godard, ‘Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard: tome 1, 1950–1984’, Cahiers du cinéma revised edn, ed. A. Bergala, Paris, 1998; Godard, ‘tome 2, 1984–1998’; see also M. Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, Chicago, 1999).

8     J. Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, New York, 1999, p. 41.

9     Such a list definitely includes diaristic intimacy, humorous though not necessarily ironic documentations of the quotidian, everyday, sociological or anthropological studies tending towards the PC but tinged with ethnic exoticism and reflections upon the self, in complicity with or opposition to the art system.

10     See B. Reise, ‘“Untitled 1969”: A footnote on art and minimal stylehood’, Studio International, London, vol. 177, no. 910, April 1969, p. 170.

11     See N. Bryson, ‘The Gaze in the Expanded Field’, in Vision and Visuality: Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 2, ed. H. Foster, New York, 1999, p. 113; I disagree with Bryson that Zen painters’ flung brushmarks are any less of a style than Pollock’s drips. Los Angeles critic M. A. Greenstein kindly alerted me to Bryson’s article when I was needlessly attempting to reinvent the same cross-cultural wheel through Tibetan Mahayana. For contrasting perspectives on similar issues of performativity and style in Pollock’s painting, see A. Jones. ‘The “Pollockian Performative” and, the Revision of the Modernist Subject’, in Body Art: Performing the Subject, Minneapolis, 1998; see also C. A, Jones, ‘The Romance of the Studio and the Abstract Expressionist Sublime’, in Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, Chicago, 1996.

12     Sze, quoted in Kastner, p.145. See Bryson ‘Expanded Field’, p. 101. I have adapted Bryson’s suggestive argument in these paragraphs to Sze’s work.

13     Sze, quoted in Kastner, p. 146.

14     See T. Crow, ‘Ross Bleckner, or the Conditions of Painting’s Reincarnation’, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven, 1996, p. 127.

15     J. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, the Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–1960, edited J.-A. Miller, trans. D. Porter, New York, 1986, p. 281. In another paragraph, Lacan writes, ‘With the Dutch painters people began to realize that any object may be the signifier by means of which that reflection, mirage, or more or less unbearable brilliance we call the beautiful starts to vibrate’ (Seminar, p.297).