On ViewSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum
March 31–September 10, 2023
In 1945, Jorge Luis Borges published “The Aleph,” a description of his experience of the aleph, a place in the universe that contains all the places in the universe. It’s under some stairs in a dumpy house in Buenos Aires:
On the lower part of the stair, toward the right, I saw a small, iridescent sphere of almost intolerable brilliance. At first, I thought it spun; then I understood that the movement was an illusion produced by the vertiginous scenes it contained. The diameter of the Aleph was about two or three centimeters, but cosmic space was there, with no diminution in its size. Each thing (the moon reflected in a mirror, for example) was infinite things, because I clearly saw it from every point in the universe.
Sarah Sze is simultaneously more grandiose and more modest than Borges. He wants to use words to depict seeing the entire universe as a simultaneity; she wants to use paint, objects, video, and the entire New York Guggenheim to depict her translation of her artistic vision into something palpable. In other words, where Borges merely tries to present us with a verbal cosmos, Sze wants to introduce us to her artistic self, the identity that sees, hears, and records living experience and transforms it into a self-referential work of art. Not art-for-art’s-sake, but art as a process that takes place in and over time, a process Sze makes concrete but which the viewer experiences piece by piece. Time, in Sze’s case, is actually part of her creative process insofar as that process can be an affective experience the viewer also experiences over time.
Where Borges trades in overt fictions that may inspire us to see things in the mind’s eye, Sze seeks to make us not only spectators but participants in the creative process. So, her appropriation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building combines the didactic with the propaedeutic: she counters Plato’s arguments against representation in Phaedrus, namely that painting a picture of a vase means copying what is already a fiction. Sze wants to open her mind, or at least her creative imagination, to us, to reveal the fundamental difference between description, that is, the re-creation of extant subjects in a work of art, and depiction, creating a situation (a visual or auditory experience) that leads us not to things but to ideas.
She begins with the museum building, a very strange space where, whether we ascend or descend the ziggurat, we are at an angle and not on a perfectly flat floor; where to hang pictures the curators must create an illusion of flatness by angling them so their base is parallel to an imaginary surface. The museum is dizzying both inside and out, and Sze capitalizes on that vertigo to disconcert our normal perception of banal objects. She begins with a pendulum hanging over the little pool in the museum atrium. This inevitably evokes the pendulum invented by Jean Foucault in 1851: suspended from a high place over a circular space, its oscillations show the rotation of the earth. Motion is one of Sze’s obsessions, as it has been for artists as disparate as Paolo Uccello or the Futurist Umberto Boccioni: painting (the first art form practiced by Sze) may suggest motion, but it cannot move. And motion inevitably means both displacement in space and in time. This combination explains the hammock structure that appears first hanging over the small pond and throughout Sze’s installation. A horizon line marking an arbitrary beginning and end. The hammock, not a resting place but more like a swing to achieve freedom from gravity, may be littered with confetti or with torn images, so it constitutes a metaphor for Sze herself, stock still but moving mentally.
We ascend to the rotunda level of the museum and find eight bays that Sze turns into chapels, each one a titled, dated installation (all from 2023), reminding us that despite appearances nothing is left to chance. Number one is River of Images. Again, Sze’s hammock, videos of demolition, lava flows, recurring motifs—hands holding a length of cloth. All motion and time. The second chapel has a large painting on its back wall, but we understand that the static painting, propped up precariously on boards and folded clothing, is connected to everything else going on in the bay. A line leading outward from the painting confirms that. The third bay contains torn photos of the beach and the rocks that reappear throughout the show. The fourth bay brings us back to the pendulum, to the idea of perpetual motion, and, again, the links that connect all the pieces in the show. All the chapels, despite the apparent incoherent relationship among the objects gathered within them, contain motifs, recurring objects, like memories to carry us literally back and forth.
The culmination of Sze’s installation is Timekeeper (2016) in a room of its own. Here we find a grand altar in the round containing myriad objects, the most telling of which is a small digital clock blinking away because no one has bothered to set the time. This is Sze’s point: measuring time with clocks means imposing a human image on something inhuman, unfathomable. Like geometry, like landscape painting human time is a metaphor we take as reality. All we can do in our journey through the Guggenheim with Sarah Sze is collect images, use memory to retrace our steps, invent meaning, and delight in her multifarious mind.