Planetary Themes

Planetary Themes

Sarah Sze (b. 1969) is a sculptor and multi-media artist whose works explore a wide and subtle range of themes, including the influence of technology on human perception and memory, our relationship to the natural world and material processes. At once intricate and grand in scale, her three-dimensional installations are often inspired by the form of the planetarium.

Sze has created two extraordinary new works for Night into Day, her current exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, Paris (watch a walkthrough tour with the artists and philosopher Bruno Latour here). Twice Twilight is a suspended metallic structure, globe-like yet skeletal, filled with found objects and projections; Tracing Fallen Sky is a floor-based sculpture suggesting a concave bowl or crater. Aesthetica spoke to the show’s curator, Leanne Sacramone.

A: What are some of the vital themes of this exhibition?
LS: Memory and materiality are important themes. Sarah is interested in the way images imprint on your retina and remain in your memory. I would say that the flickering, rotating images in the installation are a metaphor for the way our memories work in “shifting and confused gusts,” to quote Proust. In terms of materiality, many of the videos that Sarah has gathered from the internet depict the transformation of materials. She is fascinated with what she sees as our need to watch videos of people manipulating materials (stirring cake batter, shaving wood) because we are so disconnected from them in our image-saturated world. There are also other important themes: contrasts between the physical and digital, the cosmic and the microscopic, etcetera. Sarah often uses the word “teetering” to describe the way she wants her work to continuously toggle between opposing concepts.

A: Twice Twilight has a fragile, globe-like form. Do you feel that this show has an ecological message?
LS: Like all great artists, Sarah leaves her work open to many interpretations. However, it is undeniable that the form of Twice Twilight suggests the planet Earth, and nature, are quite present. Many of the moving images projected inside the sphere represent natural processes such as the movement of clouds, the flickering of a flame, the eruption of a geyser, or the reflections of light on water. Sarah has always been interested in how ephemeral materials and organic processes reveal the behavior of nature and the passage of time. More than an imitation of nature, she likes to think of her work as behaving like nature, in that it acts like a self-sustaining ecosystem. This is why she has included lighting, fans (wind) and bowls of water in the installation. From my perspective, Sarah immerses us in the temporal cycles of the earth and the cosmos. And although I do not think this piece carries any direct message, the apparent fragility of its structure and materials could suggest the precarious situation of our planet.

A: How does Sze’s work interact with the tradition of sculpture, and how does it make it new?
LS: Sarah’s work breaks from traditional sculpture in that it is not placed on a pedestal but occupies the real space of the viewer, placed directly on the floor and often enveloping them in one way or another. In addition, she has expanded sculpture’s form and content by blurring its boundaries with other disciplines such as video, film, architecture and painting. In Twice Twilight, for example, she has draped strings of dried blue paint over the spherical structure, so instead of representing the world, paint becomes a purely sculptural material.

A: Can you tell us how Sze’s works respond to the Fondation Cartier’s famous architecture?
LS: Sarah has conceived an installation that plays with the transparency of Jean Nouvel’s glass structure, transforming it into a kind of magic lantern. She projects moving images onto the glass walls of the exhibition space. These images circle the gallery in a way that recalls the movement of the zoetrope, a pre-cinematic device that was used to animate images. Sarah is interested in how Nouvel’s building creates a mirage effect because of the way in which the world is reflected on its layered glass façades. Sarah also wanted to explore how the building can become a sort of “timekeeper”, changing the way we see her works as day evolves into night. For example, during the day the projections are more visible on the inside of the building, and in the evening, they are more visible on the outside.


A: What will visitors see and feel when they enter the gallery?
LS: If visitors arrive in the evening, they will start to experience the installation from the outside, as they see projections moving across the glass façade. When they enter the building, they will first be drawn towards Twice Twilight, a spherical metallic structure over five metres in diameter suspended from the ceiling. This work is inspired by the idea of the planetarium, a circular theatre where you can observe the movements of celestial bodies. Inside, hundreds of tiny projections flicker on torn pieces of paper. Sarah has also included many familiar objects inside the structure: a trestle table, fans, lights, bowls of water, postcards, and miniature spherical models that resemble the larger work, some of them containing further flickering projections. For Sarah, these objects are like traces of human behavior.

In the smaller gallery, viewers will find another sculpture, Tracing Fallen Sky, inspired by Foucault’s pendulum, an instrument used to measure the rotation of the earth. This work is made up of hundreds of pieces of stainless steel arranged in the shape of a concave bowl, placed directly on the floor like a Venn diagram, in a field of marble powder. Videos of the sky at different times of the day and night are projected onto the installation from above, with other videos showing substances in motion or transformation (splattering paint, solidifying gold, molten glass). Mundane objects and materials are placed in a circle around the installation: tin granules, bismuth ingots, saltshakers, brooms, boxes. The pendulum swings erratically above the sculpture, seeming to chase a projection of the sun turning into the moon and not really measuring anything at all. It evokes something between a lunar landscape and an artist’s workspace.

The installations are so intricate and combine so many different images and materials that you could spend hours examining each detail and still find something new.

A: Why is Sze’s work important in the present cultural moment?LS: It asks interesting questions: what does it mean to live in a world of screens and images? How has this changed our experience of time and memory? What has become of our relationship to materials? How do we see and represent reality?  Sarah’s work gives the viewer food for thought as well as an experience of great beauty and pleasure, something I think we particularly need right now. 

Sarah Sze, Night into Day runs until 25 April 2021 at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain (please check website for opening hours and guidance)

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Twice Twilight © Edouard Caupeil

2. Sarah Sze, Slice, 2018. Mixed media, wood, stainless steel, acrylic, video projectors, archival pigment prints, ceramic and tape Dimensions Variable. © Sarah Sze. Photo Credit: Sarah Sze Studio.
3. Sarah Sze, Centrifuge, 2017 Mixed media, mirrors, wood, bamboo, stainless steel, archival pigment prints, projectors, ceramic, acrylic paint, salt Dimensions variable. © Sarah Sze. Photo Credit: Sarah Sze Studio.
4. Sarah Sze, Timekeeper, 2016 Mixed media, mirrors, wood, stainless steel, archival prints, projectors, lamps, desks, stools, stone. Dimensions Variable. © Sarah Sze. Photo Credit: Sarah Sze Studio.
5. Installation prototype in the studio for the exhibition Night Into Day at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2019. © Sarah Sze. Photo Credit: Sarah Sze Studio.