At Fondation Cartier, Sarah Sze’s Chaotic Meditations on Time and Space

With two monumental assemblages, the American sculptor probes how an over-proliferation of images changes our relationships with objects, time, and memory.

Twice Twilight by Sarah Sze at Fondation Cartier. Photography by Luc Boegly

Sarah Sze almost wasn’t granted entry into Paris to finish installing “Night Into Day,” a solo exhibition that recently opened at Fondation Cartier, and was faced with the disconcerting prospect of managing the process remotely. In many ways, that roadblock eerily dovetails with the American sculptor’s constellation-like works, which usually take the form of assemblages of found objects like desk fans, toothpicks, espresso cups, and light bulbs. Her chaotic, architectural spectacles stun, and while they often speak for themselves, Sze bolsters each with poignant meditations on how we engage with our surroundings. “As an artist, I think about the effort, desire, and continual longing we’ve had over the years to make meaning of the world around us through materials,” she says, “and to try and locate a kind of wonder, but also a kind of futility that lies in that very fragile pursuit.”

Sze was chosen to represent the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale, where she presented “Triple Point,” a similar sculptural assemblage that seemed as if it was desperately trying to escape the stoically neoclassical building it took residence in. (In thermodynamics, “triple point” refers to a singular combination of temperature and pressure at which all three phases of a substance—gas, liquid, and solid—can exist within perfect equilibrium.) At the time, she described the installation as embodying “the notion of the ‘compass’ and how we locate ourselves in a perpetually disorienting world,” noting that the aspiration to build models that capture complexity—and the impossibility of that undertaking—defines her work.

Twice Twilight by Sarah Sze at Fondation Cartier

In many ways, “Night Into Day” continues where “Triple Point” left off. Sze’s work doesn’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions or probing the innermost sanctums of the human psyche, and has adopted even greater significance as the world grapples with a new normal brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. As we spend an increasingly greater amount of time staring at screens in quarantine, she recalls how time and space are melting together into meaningless blobs, often even in her own home. “There [are] Zoom meetings with China going on while someone’s trying to make dinner,” she tells The Guardian. “Time and space flip, become blurred.” We’re consuming more images—printed in magazines, gleaned from the internet, projected hazily during Zoom meetings—than ever before, which is transforming our relationships with objects, time, and memory. 

Such informs the premise for “Night Into Day,” which consists of two individual works from Sze’s Timekeeper series that disrupt the boundaries between inside and outside, mirage and reality, and past and present. Twice Twilight, the show’s physical centerpiece, suggests a sphere-like shape held in an orchestrated suspension by bamboo scaffolding. (Feel free to venture inside.) Outlined in torn paper, photographs, and projected moving images of natural forms like multiplying biological cells and an erupting geyser, the planetarium-like work hovers nervously like a restless orb. The second piece, Tracing Fallen Sky, features a mirrored concave structure whose steel surfaces emanate a swarm of fragmented images like a bowl of reflective water. A giant Foucault-like pendulum swings in an irregular and hypnotic manner overhead, further signifying our skewed perceptions of time. 

Fondation Cartier designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris

Inspired by age-old scientific measuring devices designed to help map the earth and the cosmos, each work shrouds the glass-clad walls of Fondation Cartier—an ethereal 1994 building designed by Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel—in chaotic visuals, almost like a zoetrope. It’s not the first time that Sze has worked within the structure’s confines: One of her first solo exhibitions, in 1999, featured disassembled aluminum ladders and innumerable small objects sourced from discount hardware stores that seemed to take over the floor, the ceiling, and the building’s glass walls. “In my first show, I wanted to turn up the play in the building, to show that it’s playing with us,” Sze tells Wallpaper. “This time, I’m using the building as a machine, an image maker, co-opting the building as almost like a camera itself.”

Speaking of cameras, “Night Into Day” deftly utilizes augmented reality to further blur lines between digital and physical. Sze’s sculptures are perhaps best experienced after dark, when the luminous projections can shine brightest. Much like the exhibition name suggests, daytime visitors with smartphones can use AR to travel several hours forward or backward to experience how each work’s illusory visuals interact with their surroundings at night. She was taken by the recent Pokemon Go phenomenon, which she compares to mass choreography, and aimed to replicate a similar feeling. While it brings a human-made feature to Fondation Cartier’s surrounding wildflower gardens, don’t mistake the show as purely AR-driven. Sze’s works are best experienced fully in the present.

Prototype of Twice Twilight in Sarah Sze's studio

Despite having just realized the near-Sisyphean “Night Into Day” during a global pandemic, which entailed 16-hour workdays from her installation team, Sze has much more on her roster. A solo exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, originally scheduled to open this month, was abruptly postponed until 2023. No matter: In Spring 2021, she’ll unveil a 36-foot-wide permanent outdoor sculpture at Storm King Art Center in Upstate New York. Called “Fallen Sky,” the sculpture consists of a delicate spherical cavity, sheathed in mirrored stainless steel, that “reflects the concave sky, creating a sense of the landscape in reverse,” Sze says. Not only does it feel like her most understated work to date, it may also be her most meditative. Visitors will be immersed in the sky from above and below as they peer into the reflections, teetering uneasily between both vantage points. “Framed by the landscape, the work erases the land and gives form to the air, allowing an intimate view of what’s normally vast and immeasurable.” It’s another Sze play on deception and frame of reference. However it turns out, it’ll sure as hell beat another Zoom. 

Sarah Sze: Twice Twilight will be on view at Fondation Cartier in Paris until March 7, 2021.

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