From New York: Infinite LineFebruary 1, 2012
Pen caps, coins, ticket stubs, receipts, business cards, pebbles, rocks, string, spring clamps, painters tape, plastic cups, tumblers, Ikea desk lamps, vision charts, color blindness tests, arched strips of wood, mobiles, inkjet prints of rocky landscapes: Sarah Sze uses these odds and ends to form installations and to ask, “How does something become a work of art, as opposed to remaining a mundane object?” It’s a risky, provocative inquiry, but the installations on view in Infinite Line at the Asia Society fall short of achieving a productive tension.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of random objects (pity the museum registrar!) take up residence in one large gallery. They compose eight separate installations, though the arrangements are so sprawling and the materials so similar, it’s unclear where one ends and another begins. A paradox emerges while one tiptoes between the works: aggregations of variety can manifest sameness. The experience is simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming. How can one possibly sustain enough attention for every bit and bob? And, scanning the knickknacks, no gist arises from them. If the works advance a material or technical investigation, the findings are inconclusive. How does art arise from these accumulations of everyday things? How does a whole exceed the sum of its parts?
The curatorial statement promises “lyrical” moments and, to be fair, I did find some. It was a pleasant surprise for one’s eye to follow Sze’s placement of objects beyond the gallery in Random Walk Drawing (Window) (2011). This installation begins inside the gallery but continues outside the window, onto the roof of the marquee below. I imagined the exposed rocks and ephemera suffering winter freezes and thaws—so unlike the sterile museum environment. The work includes a color landscape image transferred to the length of a wooden beam. Nearby, string has been painstakingly wrapped around rocks in concentric contour lines, suggesting elevation. It’s a charming transformation from a topographical map feature into a crafted, physical object. Random Walk Drawing (Compass) (2011) smartly integrates gallery apparatuses
typically ignored: the installation’s wallpaper has cutouts for the security alarm console, and among the detritus is the gallery’s hygrothermograph, which monitors the room’s humidity and temperature. The wit of these gestures, however, felt disproportionate to the amount of attention invested.
Given my attraction to the idea of formlessness and my fascination with notions of objecthood and commodification, I had high hopes for this exhibition. Instead, I found the arrangements provisional, aimless, and at times even indolent. I don’t think impactful works of art must transcend quotidian life, but they have to register as aesthetic experiences in some dimension.
The psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson describe four dimensions of aesthetic experience in The Art of Seeing (1987): perceptual, communicative, intellectual, and emotional.1 In Infinite Line, there is much to perceive, but I found the communicative, intellectual, and emotional repercussions of the exhibition to be diffuse. I don’t believe this was due to my own passivity. As Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson note, viewers should bring energy and expertise to works of art. In return, they can hope to engage worthy challenges. Otherwise, the effort is tiresome and fruitless. I found Sze’s terrain—the elusive step between mundanity and art—compelling as an artist’s dilemma but tedious as a viewing experience.
In contrast to her sprawling installations, Sze’s two-dimensional works also on view in this exhibit offer a tidier and more conventional viewing experience. Early drawings and prints juxtapose architectural renderings and Asian landscape paintings, evincing Sze’s skillful hand and dynamic compositions. These works have a secure status as aesthetic artifacts because they operate within the pictorial plane and use familiar media and methods of display. Sze’s recent screen prints of color-blindness tests fulfill similar criteria but, upon further reflection, I see how the artist might be exploring the gap between object and artwork as well. Though they are framed as fine-art prints, the images still resemble and can probably function similarly to their optometric sources.
Infinite Line can be characterized by the gap between art and non-art objects, not for the fertile aesthetic potential that the artist pursued but rather for the incongruity between Sze’s two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, as well as the unintended effects of publicity images. The Asia Society’s website displays a number of Sze’s past works, whose scale, ambition, playfulness, and resolution exceed that of the installations on view; the website content, unfortunately, primes viewers for a very different experience than what the galleries can deliver.
Checks and Balances (2011), which appears on the press release and brochure cover, is small in scale yet manages to reconcile the show’s dualistic theme. This impossibly delicate assembly of inked-and-cut paper is cheekily pinned to the wall with blue thumbtacks and adorned with pebbles on strings. It’s casually displayed, yet it is coherently composed and visually compelling. Its facture and imagery pull it toward artwork status, while its display and quotidian, non-mimetic media push it toward objecthood. Checks and Balances exhibits tension and resolution, providing much-needed traction for understanding how mundane objects become artworks.
Infinite Line is on view at Asia Society, in New York, through March 25, 2012.