Arts and Entertainment

Time, Junk, and Sarah Sze’s Beautiful Mess

Sarah Sze: Timelapse will captivate anyone who stumbles across the top of the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda.

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By Reya Miller

Sarah Sze has a vision for the Guggenheim Museum, and she knows how to execute it. All the way on the top floor of the iconic New York art museum is a collection of the Boston-born artist’s latest works in the Sarah Sze: Timelapse exhibit. Sze’s art is undoubtedly contemporary, making use of unconventional materials like home instruments as it explores complicated themes of technology and nature and their place in the rapidly changing world. Almost all of Sze’s exhibited works—sprawling installations combining video, audio, and sculpture—were created on-site before the exhibit opened, allowing them to feel perfectly embedded into the Guggenheim’s iconic circular structure.

Near the exhibit’s entrance, there is a line of cardboard boxes, plants, and stick structures that creep into a broad gap in the wall containing a wide canvas, the centerpiece of Travelers Among Streams and Cascades (2023). The canvas itself is covered in a shade of arctic blue, complemented by a photograph of a body of water at sunset spread across its bottom left. On and above the water are sprinkles of blank neon Post-its that travel to the canvas’ right, creating color variation in an otherwise predominantly blue work. Both sides are collages of images of people, tools, animals, and fire, all messily cut and pasted onto the canvas. The jagged edges of the photographs make them seem like true glimpses of what lurks behind the canvas in the captivating landscapes, as if the canvas is a gateway to different worlds. Images of fire are placed among harsh streaks of dark blue paint, creating contrast and contributing to a greater sense of chaos. The last three images on the canvas’s right side are close-ups of a hand holding a pen pointing at a blank page. While the other images are abstract representations of the greater world, these images are a look into the artwork’s past form: a blank canvas. 

Many of Sze’s works take up large amounts of space, spreading across the walls of the entire museum. Slice (2023) starts on one wall before turning at the corner to appear on the other side. At the work’s front is a platform composed of pictures of the sky in various vibrant colors: orange, purple, yellow, and blue. Atop the platform is wood scaffolding that soars toward the ceiling, with tools like staple removers resting upon it. The staple removers are just one example of how Sze incorporates many ordinary objects into the work, including clips, brightly-colored ladders, and boxes. When viewers turn the wall’s corner, they see the rest of the work: the scaffolding holds up a variety of images of both life and nature. These include literal elements like fire and ice, animals like birds, and even human hands playing cards. The pictures are layered with videos projected on top that show the underlying images in motion: for example, the image of the bird is enhanced with an overlapping video of it flapping its wings. The pictures contrast with the material used for the work’s skeleton: home appliances. While the pictures show the natural movement of life and its elements, the appliances highlight the world’s more artificial side, acting as corporate objects that solely exist to serve simple purposes of human convenience. Slice is built on humble tools and feels almost like the inside of a hardware store, but it is filled with mesmerizing sprinkles of the outside world. These two conflicting forces collectively bring vibrancy and color to the piece, even though they come from starkly different realms of the world.

Capping off the exhibit is Timekeeper (2016), located in an isolated gallery. This is one of the only works not made exclusively for the exhibit, and it is possibly one of Sze’s most elaborate. It is hard to put into words how much Sze infuses into this convoluted visual and auditory cluster of potted plants, screens, and other household objects, all showcased in a dark room. Digital clocks show the time in places from around the world while toilet paper, bottles, and stationery tools are clumped together, illuminated by bright lamps. Amidst all of this is the constant sound of dripping, whirring, and the occasional beep. Museum-goers are surrounded by dark walls with videos of both static and animals projected onto them, emphasizing the interconnectedness of nature and technology as the work’s central theme: no matter how separate they may seem from each other, they both coexist in the same time period and on the same Earth. Despite how much variety Sze puts into this work, everything—the plants, the animals, the imagery of time and technology—still feels connected and seamless, telling the story of the 21st century in a beautiful cacophony. 

Sze’s work is a reflection of the new ways the world has found to embrace art. Her works are made of unlikely materials but are still undeniably powerful. Sze makes use of the gallery space at the Guggenheim Museum to create a striking experience through her dynamic art, which is right at home within the museum’s famous helix.