Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Sarah Sze - Tilting Planet

This is a sort of art review piece. Feel free to ignore it, and I'll not hold it against you. You won't make 'the list,' I promise. Probably. Hey, it's your choice.

If you're already familiar with Sarah Sze and her work, congratulations. If not, then you're like me before yesterday afternoon, when I stumbled on her Tilting Planet installation at BALTIC.*

I'd dropped in on my way home, as I'd been meaning to see A Duck for Mr Darwin for a while - an exhibition themed loosely around ideas of nature and evolution to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin . I wasn't terribly impressed by most of it though**, but then I stumbled on (in the sense of went upstairs to) Tilting Planet.***

How best to describe it? It's difficult. It's a huge, intricately constructed sculpture, or possibly interconnected set of sculptures/constructions built from everyday and 'found' objects. Dowelling, leaves, twine, matchboxes, drawing pins, Evian bottles, desk lamps and oddly large number of miniature water features amongst much else. Photography is verboten, natch, so I couldn't take this to help illustrate the description. You'll just have to rely on my magnificent prose.
As you can't see, it's a sprawling piece, and as you probably really can't see, it's demarcated by wool and trails of carefully placed small white boxes and blue pushpins. You wander around very much inside it, because the whole space effectively is the sculpture and there is no simple line between artwork and audience.

Frankly, it's far too intricate and large for any one photo to convey properly. So I've decided to comment on it by juxtaposing some of Robert Blackson's commentary in the complementary guide-type thing with my own reactions to it.

Blackson says

our path becomes integral to our experience. Initially, one might feel adrift in her doodles with consumables, however we are soon guided by Sze's spatial compositions that appear like the scaffolding of air currents

What is interesting is that my experience differed in several respects. Certainly when I entered the space I was a little disoriented, but I did not feel guided at all - rather I was acutely aware of being in an environment that possessed a kind of passive hostility.

Perhaps what I mean by this can be best illustrated by looking at another of Blackson's descriptions:

Sze is, in essence, cobbling a fragile ecosystem that is dependent on a balance between the ephemeral and relational.

One thing that this installation categorically is not, is an ecosystem. It is absolutely without dynamism, there are no actors in it. Everything is interconnected and finely balanced, but that results in an intensely complex yet fragile work: it has none of the dynamism and adaptability of an ecosystem. Ducking under lines of wool and stepping over bottles you are aware of just how easy it would be to destroy the entire work. And with any upset to the layout or position of components, the whole would be disturbed. You could argue that rearranging the elements produces a new work, but for me the experience of the artwork was defined by the complexity created by an intelligent designer, and disturbing that sense of order would destroy its value. This is unlike the biological world in every important respect.

There is an undeniable artfulness in the way everything is put together. Bigger pieces and smaller pieces alike turn out to have been constructed carefully, from the arrangement of the upturned pushpins that at first look almost casually spilt along the floor; to the upended desk fan whose rotation affects a miniature water feature in half an Evian bottle. It's why I disagree with Blackson again when he says

The kinship we share with these everyday objects dissolves the public experience into a series of private associations

- because I don't think there is a sense of kinship to these objects: they are clearly part of some other, greater whole and I didn't look at the pushpins and see notice boards, or the matchboxes and think of smoky pubs. It was the patterns they made in the space of the installation that struck me.

It may sound, to any cynical sods out there, like the most pretentious aspects of modern art, but I think it is saved by not having any pretentions. I don't think the work is supposed to be speaking to us, but rather simply to be marvellous.

And I do mean marvellous. Whilst I went in out of mild curiosity I soon found myself fascinated by the delicacy and complexity of construction. I also found myself gingerly negotiating it as I moved from piece to piece within the room. This is where the sense of passive hostility comes in: I was acutely aware of how easy it would be for me to - quite accidentally - destroy the work. A trip or simply not noticing some piece of dowelling amongst the jungle could irrevocably alter the setup and cascade disorder amongst the intricate structures.

It was hostile simply by being there and being what it was, and I found myself again and again marvelling at strange little expressions of this, such as the water feature hidden under a pile of blank lined paper, or the dozens of small rolled pieces of paper defying gravity under a dowelling construction. Delicate, fragile, so easily destroyed and yet somehow because of this, defiant.

I left with a huge grin on my face. Go see it, it's ... well ... marvellous.

*They insist on spelling it that way, for reasons best known for themselves. To me it just feels as though the whole gallery's a child in a huff SHOUTING to get ATTENTION, but it's their call I suppose.

**Actually it's a bit more complicated than that, as Dr Ben likes to say, but I'll get to that at another time.

***This entry is likely to be worryingly full of italics. Also blockquotes. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Updated for clarity and diction. Also to expand on some stuff a bit.

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