Being There

In more ways than one, Columbia professor Sarah Sze is the artist of the moment.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2016
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''Timekeeper'', 2016.

Sze teaches in the spring, and she administers the same care to her students that she does to her art. For graduate critiques, she’ll go into the artist’s studio and look at the work in silence, thinking about what needs to be said and how to say it. “I emphasize information over affirmation,” she says. “I want to give people tools to think about what they’re doing. My goal is that when I leave the studio, the artist wants to dive into the work.” For group classes, it’s the same: “We don’t talk about liking or not liking something. It’s not about taste. It’s about allowing the person being critiqued to learn about his or her process without feeling debilitated.” 

Her canvas is time and space, her work a discourse with the physical world, a dance with instability and demise.

Art school, says Sze, should be a place where you can make mistakes and get feedback. “You can create this incredible dialogue, which can accelerate the work so quickly,” Sze says. “It’s such a miracle when you see someone’s work develop in two years, which is nothing — that’s why I love teaching the Columbia MFA students: they’re so wonderful, thoughtful, intense, and committed.”

Sze enjoys her undergrads, too. “They are super smart and totally open creatively,” she says. “There’s this willingness to learn, and a joy in exploration. I love the dialogue. I learn so much from them. I love going up there. Every time I leave, I’m totally energized.”


At the back of Sze’s studio is a sliding door: Sze opens it and steps into a dark room. In the middle of the room is a thing, a structure, the sort of eccentric, spectacular creation that only genius could produce. It’s humming and blinking, and your first thought is: it’s alive. You move toward its glow, around its curvature, pulled by a shuddering sense of revelation.

Now it appears: a crystal city of information, of mirror shards and torn photographs and desk lamps and assorted fragments, the galaxy of it caught in a fragile and complex anatomy. Sze points out the two worktables that form the base of the opus, obscured in a jumble of objects that has proliferated from the site of its making with an almost biological compulsion. Video screens ripple with oceans and fires before pixelating, disintegrating; while on the ceiling there plays a fuzzy, flickering light, cast there by the collusion of a tray of water, a fan, and a mirror, and suggestive of film. Sze has been thinking about the origins of film, and “how film marks time, how it feels in the memory.”

It’s a lot to take in — which is part of the point.

“I’m playing with this idea of this onslaught of images, and images as debris, juxtaposed in ways that you don’t imagine,” Sze says. “Though it can be overwhelming, we’ve been conditioned to learn how to read this much information at once.” You then notice animals on the walls, circling the room at varying speeds: a peregrine falcon, followed by a cheetah and other creatures. The images are beamed from a rotating projector within the sculpture, in plain view (Sze hides nothing: the curtain is always pulled back). The swirling projection, Sze says, “makes the architecture become this cocoon that encircles you.” You are in the sculpture, and perhaps have become its plaything.

“I want the feeling that you are having a moment in time that is fragile and you’re experiencing it live,” Sze says. “Very few moments are marked in time anymore, because we can now access so many things out of time. It’s about the moment of being there.” 

So you stand at this altar of ingenuity, delicacy, intricacy, craft, caprice, ideas; this fragile ecosystem, this cracked mirror of civilization. Its title is Timekeeper. It took six months to complete, and, like much of Sze’s work, it will be dismantled.

''Long White Paint Hanging (Fragment Series)'', 2015; ''Lost Image Standing (Fragment Series)'', 2015. / Photograph by Jason Mandella

Nothing lasts forever, but some things last longer than others. This winter, the long-awaited, long-delayed Second Avenue subway line is scheduled to open with three stations. In a bold scheme, the MTA handed each station to a single artist — 72nd Street to Vik Muniz, 86th to Chuck Close, and 96th to Sze — a canvas as big and public and challenging as one could dream of, and, in some ways, says Sze, “as permanent as you can get.”

The station at 96th Street is two blocks long, with three entryways. Sze has anointed it with vast violet-blue drawings that she fabricated in porcelain-enamel panels. “It’s all based on the idea of blueprints, of drawing as a tool to understand three-dimensional space,” she says. As ever, Sze brings an architect’s concern for the viewer’s experience of encountering the art — how one enters and leaves, how things unfold. “When you go into the station, it’s an entirely immersive environment," she says. "You experience it coming down." She points to a picture of the steep gradient of the escalator, with its blue wall and fine white lines and ripples and marine-like shapes. “You’re in this narrow space on the escalator. You’re in a void, and then you get this intense vertical landscape.”

Another picture shows the wall above the track bed, the part that’s still visible when a train pulls in. It bears Sze’s arresting abstractions in blue and white, a distinctive signpost for the weary straphanger. “When you come to that station,” Sze says with a laugh, “you’ll know exactly where you are.”

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