Sarah Sze: Many a Slip

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through August 1

By Mark Swartz

If Sarah Sze’s shopping list had fallen into your hands a few months ago, you might have thought twice about returning it to her–for her own good. Razor blades, pushpins, sewing shears, pills, and other potentially hazardous materials are part of her installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Many a Slip. What kind of art is made from this stuff? Something dark and treacherous? Not entirely. Sze epoxies these and other everyday items together in a meandering line that twists from one room to another almost absentmindedly–though there’s no way the piece would have worked as well as it does without extensive planning and determination.

Many a Slip, set up in the MCA’s Project Room, is the debut museum exhibition by this 30-year-old Brooklyn-based artist. This piece and others she’s done in Berlin and London–described in a miniature catalog put out by the MCA and the Chicago art magazine Whitewalls, featuring thoughtful essays on Sze by Staci Boris and Francesco Bonami along with photographic details–make it clear the artist has carved out a niche for herself between sculpture and installation.

Sze’s work combines the mechanics of a Rube Goldberg contraption, the implacable menace of the machine described in Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” and the vacant determination of amateur artists’ office-supply art (paper-clip palaces, rubber-band balls). The result is closer to an apparatus one might find in a really crazy aquarium than to its art-history precedents, Jean Tinguely’s “meta-matic” drawing machines and Jessica Stockholder’s sculptures of junk, both organic and man-made.

The proverb that gives the work its title–“There is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip”–seems intended to remind us that even the simplest action is likely to go awry. If anything, Sze’s assemblage seems to defy the proverb, however, pulling off dozens of physics-defying stunts without spilling a (metaphorical) drop. Yet its mechanical virtuosity accounts for only a fraction of its appeal: Sze’s good at balancing stuff, but she’s even better at balancing sensations.

Not all the elements in the piece are as menacing as the ones mentioned; it also includes houseplants, chopsticks, and cotton swabs. It’s possible that my mood had a lot to do with how I perceived Many a Slip, but each of the three times I visited, what caught my eye were the barbs on the fishhooks. The oven thermometer might be regarded as innocuous, but in this context it evokes suicide. And the container of Morton salt–which I first supposed to be a nod to Chicago, where the world’s largest and oldest salt company is headquartered–eventually came to signify salt for the wounds Sze figuratively inflicts. Many a Slip also includes a few enigmatic video projections of tiny figures that appear to be frolicking–or struggling to escape, depending on how you look at them.

The machine in Kafka’s story is horrific, designed to torture and execute a prisoner unaware even that a sentence has been passed against him. But the device also arouses an undeniable curiosity and is described in the story’s first line as a “remarkable piece of apparatus.” Similarly, Sze’s contraption remains beautiful and delicate even after its underlying menace is detected. Gluing plastic straws and wooden matches around electrical cords and assorted hardware goods, Sze creates a systematic disorder, or chaotic system, out of everyday merchandise. The work seems to assemble itself, unspooling from the electrical outlet above the entryway and creeping from room to room. It gathers energy as it goes, incorporating different materials, and loses energy, falling into a haphazard entropy. The wheat grass plant in the third room has been allowed to yellow, wither, and rot.

Drawing you into its depths, Sze’s installation pulls you along its twists and detours from one room to the next. A museum guard limits the number of people in the second room (to five), telling you whether you’re allowed to proceed–a sensible measure given the fragility of the construction, but it adds to the Kafkaesque experience Sze has designed. Many a Slip offers a few surprises in the second room, including photographs of snakes, before escaping into a third room through an opening too small for a human being. Peering through the “doorway” into the room, you feel certain it holds the greatest delights of all, a feeling heightened by the frustration of being unable to get in. Beyond this third room is a fourth, even less visible through the same doorway, which appears to hold nothing but a scattering of pink Styrofoam packing peanuts.

The materials inside the last room gave me the impression that it was the starting point, the place where all the other elements had been unpacked. This apparent reversal of beginning and end had a disorienting effect, changing my overall sense of the work. That disjunction was compounded by the discovery of Sze’s alterations to the finish of the museum’s parquet flooring and the realization that she had constructed the walls that divided the Project Room into four spaces. Clearly there was more to this work than cheap hardware-shop stuff. Sze had controlled the entire environment, not just the sculpture that grabs and holds the viewer’s attention. Many a Slip slides in and out of focus, extending a promise of finality and then withdrawing it.

Sze has characterized the spirit of her work as “anxious idealism,” an appropriately paradoxical phrase that captures both the uncertainty when multiple readings are possible and the hope, perhaps idealistic, that we’re in good hands, that this artist has a unified vision. The work coheres on a level subtler than suggestion: insinuation. And insinuations can be missed, especially if you strain to catch them. Sze’s work insinuates itself from room to room, an inexorable force neither shy nor aggressive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Oudeman.