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Sarah Sze At The Fabric Workshop
New Installations Offer A Quiet Meditation On
Time, Scale, And Gravity 

Since 1996, Sarah Sze has received broad notice for her dense, intricate sculptural interventions that transform the architectural spaces she occupies. From a delicate stool scrupulously made of toothpicks (2010) to her signature installations that collect detritus from the commonplace—Evian water bottles, paper coffee cups, table lamps, potted plants, and pebbles (just to name a few)—Sze’s meticulous assemblages are concerned with forlorn objects and ignored spaces. Her critical view on the environment we inhabit, an often frenetic balancing act of objects that interrogate the dialectical relationships between the monumental and the quotidian, natural and industrial, conditional and the absolute, find repose and quietude in her newest works on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in downtown Philadelphia. Until April 6, 2014, the Fabric Workshop and Museum presents three, unique viewing experiences offered by American-Chinese artist Sarah Sze. Created in collaboration with the FWM’s invitation-only Artist-in-Residence Program, the FWM hosts the artist's first solo exhibition featuring her elaborative compositions in Philadelphia.

Sze’s works are a study in contrasts. Occupying the first, second, and eighth-floor galleries, it would be easy to miss Sarah Sze’s first installation that stands discretely at the entryway of the museum. An office desk (inhabited by the museum’s gallery attendants and guides) occupies the center of the room. A spotlight quietly focuses attention on the desk’s isolated position. Coupled with the iconic Modernist tulip chair designed by Finnish architect and designer, Eero Saarinen, and a large, white filing cabinet tucked away in a corner of the gallery, this restaged workspace manages to reference the ecosystem of an office workspace. It’s a disorienting experience, simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, as Sze manipulates gallery space expectations by staging this scene within the liminal space between the museum’s entryway and the next gallery. As a singular artwork, the staged desk scene treads on rather tired territory exploring the banality of mass-manufactured objects and the boundary between "real" and representation. The transition between the "real" world and the artist’s world (as we discover in the next gallery) feels ultimately superfluous.

The scene comes more into focus when visitors pass through the glass partitioned doors and enter Sze’s next installation. A 1:1-scale replica of the office desk is recreated with delicate wireframe boxes and ceramic fragment shards. Those familiar with Sze’s work, which often display a maniacal accumulation of objects ranging from extension cords, pen caps, Q-tips, light bulbs, and electric fans, will be pleased to find those familiar elements in her first-floor installation. The orderly desk arrangement of the first room finds its counterpoint in the chaotic wireframe model which looks on the brink of collapse with its fragile skeletal frame. The Modernist tulip chair remains, along with commuter Amtrak coffee cups and lamps, but other elements spill onto the gallery floor including copies of the front page of the New York Times (pictures cut out), a roll of blue painters tape, Pantone swatches, a clipboard swathed in a macramé weaving, a portable heater, tiny pebbles suspended with twine, postcard-sized pictures of the cosmos and nature, and an almost empty plastic water bottle with condensation drops collected inside. This marriage of industrial objects and organic elements are part and parcel of Sze's process of artistic arrangement. Her representation of a system conceives an ecology of disparate parts that comprise a vast world of contemplation and surprise. 
The evocation of the organic is reiterated on the second-floor gallery which offers a divergent viewing experience from the first floor. Simply comprised of simulated rocks and boulders along with a series of 13 identical screen-printed paintings, this installation is a departure from Sze’s previous works that often lend an overwhelming impression to viewers through their sheer quantity. Here, in contrast with the darkened corridors and intimately lit gallery space from the first floor, the second floor gives way to a brightly lit, vast gallery that Sze herself cuts in order to perform her Formalist experiments with scale and representation—in turns Modernist and futuristic, experimental, and realist. (A walk behind the empty partition at the end of the gallery makes her artistic process ever more transparent and mutable to viewers.) The way Sze usually leads her viewer around her work is through-line, which she uses to direct viewers' sightlines to often-overlooked points like corners and the edges between floors, walls, and ceilings. Instead, here the artist employs a sense of scale and volume to the second floor's cavernous gallery, composing a balanced and pleasing composition of various sized rocks and boulders that span horizontally across the room. Some are real, most are not. 

Sze's models aren't simply sculptural, though; they're informed by a digital component. She uses prints of magnified surface mineral patterns of rocks, stretching them across a frame of foam to create a facsimile—lest the viewer wonders how Sze transported over six-foot boulders into the FWM. Varying in pixel resolution, viewers are prompted to interrogate the difference between object and image, “real” and representation, particularly conscious of our increasing reliance on digital culture and contemporary ways of seeing. As an analog that extends these Formalistt investigations, Sze props 13 screen-printed canvases depicting the faux rock pattern against the wall. Each canvas represents a singular hue part of the digital printing color system, CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. The sheer monumentality of the work, both physically and conceptually, prompts the viewer to examine the idea of presence. Giant rock formations indirectly recall prehistoric times, but also acutely make viewers aware of the sheer size of their corporeal bodies in relation to the world. It’s a commendable work that sometimes loses its initial dynamism, suffering under Sze's sometimes heavy-handed approach. Her Formalist leanings can become a crutch, producing work that sometimes feels hermetically sealed.  

If Sze’s two previous works for the FWM sometimes suffer from a case of recycled ideas and a sometimes overbearing approach (mere quibbles), her eighth-floor installation is a bravura piece of work that successfully injects a fresh ethos to the most successful elements of her first and second-floor installations. Hushed above the streets of downtown Philadelphia, the eighth floor contains concrete flooring and cathedral-length frosted windows that flood the space with a soft-focus, natural light. Laid out across the museum floor are crisply arranged New York Times front pages which not only recall the copies of New York Times newspapers found in the first-floor installation but is significant for its chronological arrangement from June-October 2013 that represents Sarah Sze’s residency with the FWM. Wire boxes, construction lamp lights, electrical cords, and blue tape serve to reinforce the objects in her first-floor installation

and highlight the literal “construction” process of time and events reported by newspapers. Sze’s arrangement of newspapers within the eighth-floor gallery (which are densely arranged then scattered loosely as the viewer travels back into the cavernous space) recalls her experimentation with volume, scale, and density on the second floor. The photographs removed previously from the newspapers are now interpolated with nature photography—rippling water, cloudy skies, and celestial constellation systems.

To miss the disjuncture between newspaper headlines and photographs of natural phenomena is to completely miss the point of Sarah Sze’s meditations on shifting time and value where world events feel comparatively small and insignificant to geologic time (say, of the Stone Age). It’s a reverent experience contemplating the rupture of time, and Sze’s installation considers these reflections in a poetic use of object and space. This exhibition is clearly intentioned and successful in many ways, and Ms. Sze’s quiet introspections are admired and deeply appreciated by this viewer.

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