New York

Sarah Sze

If a work of art sits still, you look at it; if it moves, you’d better watch it. Sarah Sze’s Many a Slip, 1999, differs from most sculpture in that it bears watching as much as being looked at. It doesn’t just occupy a certain space, however elegantly or inventively. Rather, despite the fact that it has almost no moving parts—only, for instance, a fan, the kind of thing that moves but stays put—the work seems to make its way through space, to ramble, meander, or extravagate: to start at Point A under certain conditions and then somehow, by the time it’s inched its way gingerly over to Point B, to turn out quite differently.

I’ve seen a few of Sze’s pieces in the short time since she first drew attention fewer than three years ago in the group show “The Name of the Place,” curated by Laurie Simmons at Casey Kaplan in New York (though her having become a darling of the biennials means I’ve missed a bunch, too). And it seems that while the kinds of materials and the methods of construction have been pretty similar from piece to piece, the type of movement that each assemblage embodies has varied considerably. Many a Slip seems to have been based on the idea of a sort of exponential growth in complexity as well as in scale. It starts in utter simplicity at the one doorway from which the piece is accessible, with a single yellow electrical cord dropping down from the ceiling (where you might just miss the little night-light glowing pitifully next to the lighting track it’s plugged into) to power a desk lamp that sits with a plant on a wooden stool. The cord, our Ariadne’s thread, loops its way through an ever-increasing welter of stuff as we follow it along, until it disappears, a room and a half later, into a chamber built into a wall, which is stuffed with heterogeneous household objects, but stuffed, if such a thing is possible, in a crystalline way—a disorder that looks ordered. And because the aperture through which we view this chamber is so limited, we can only imagine that the chamber might go on indefinitely. The work expands at a more or less constant (and therefore rational) rate until all of a sudden, without your quite knowing where the break between measured growth and “irrational exuberance” (in Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase) occurred, you realize the piece has gone haywire. And yet, it is all somehow still connected to that single yellow cord that started it, and around which everything else began to aggregate before we lost track of it along the way.

As with all of Sze’s work, there’s something pleasantly airy and translucent about Many a Slip, whose elusiveness is embedded in its title. You might say that, here, Sze is to Jessica Stockholder, or even to Jason Rhoades, as Fred Sandback is to Richard Serra. But for all this work’s insolidity, it’s not the kind of art that solicits your anxious concern or asks you to worry about the fact that the whole thing might crumble if you talk too loud. Sze’s stock-in-trade is wit, not pathos. Even though Many a Slip is made of stuff like Q-Tips, matches, floor tiles, magnifying glasses, household sponges, pushpins, plastic spoons, clothespins, and chair caning—to name just a few items in what could easily become a Whitmanesque catalogue of the entire contents of your local “discount store” as seen through the most discerning eye to have scrutinized the coloristic potential of cheap plastics since Tony Cragg’s in the ’80s—its shambling makeshift construction gives the impression of being unaccountably sturdy: There looks to be a lot of “give” to it, and more structural redundancy than you might first think. “Details, details, details, details,” was the best viewer comment I overheard while scribbling notes about what I watched and looked at. But all the painstakingly detailed construction that’s gone into certain passages of this work seems to suggest the mind, not of someone apt to lose track of overall structure in favor of minutiae, but on the contrary, of an artist capable of really conceiving a single structure as penetrating all the way down from the big picture to its smallest unit, and therefore capable of soliciting the contemplation of contemporary experience from the standpoint of its most trivial by-products.

Barry Schwabsky is the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press).