The Remains of the Day: Sarah Sze and her Images in Debris

by Emese Krunák-Hajagos

Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto.
Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (New York and Los Angeles). Photo Toni Hafkenscheid

Entering the back room of the 2nd floor at MOCA from the brightly lit exhibition of Carlos Bunga’s A Sudden Beginning with its network of boxes, the darkness envelops us, a darkness that blinds. Is what we see real or just a mirage that gives the illusion of an installation? The eye and the mind both have to adjust to the magic world of Sarah Sze’s work, a universe in itself.

Images in Debris was created in 2018 and purchased at its only exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London by Toronto collectors Audrey and David Mirvish who have loaned it to MOCA. It is the younger sister of Timekeeper from 2016, an installation that travelled to some of the world’s pre-eminent museums and is part of the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Their structures are similar, each with a central point from where an abundance of objects and effects is organized on wire scaffolding and the surrounding walls. Some motifs are recurring like a moving image of a running cheetah, a plant, a moon and its pixelated images, pieces of painted and then ripped paper, and the very special handling of light and darkness. 

It is impossible to describe the installation itself – and Sze’s work in general – so everyone who writes about it speaks of a personal journey. As Sze said in Art:21 her goal is to maintain the viewer’s attention and challenge them, so the experience of viewing becomes a discovery. It is more about time and space and our relations to them than about the objects in front of us. Contemporary life is overwhelming and as a result our senses are overloaded, and our memories become fragmented. Time is subjective. Some moments stay with us for decades, remembered vividly, while others fall into the abyss never to resurface. The so-called ordinary moments of our lives stay in greyness forever. What is time, really? The present we live in becomes the past before we recognize it. The past is only memories, and all depends on how we select and store them. The future is a vision or a dream at best. Once Yoko Ono collected little stones on her morning walk and titled them with the exact time she found them to have a reminder of each moment. Sze tries to reconstruct time by keeping and putting together various objects of daily life and images she has searched, found and photographed. As time is never linear, her work mirrors that nature, not telling us her story but leaving us with the opportunity to create our own narratives.

Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto.
Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (New York and Los Angeles). Photo Toni Hafkenscheid

There is no time without space. Images in Debris works with fragments as if trying to reconstruct a building that is falling apart by picking up some stones. Sze is influenced by architecture but she considers her work sculptural. As she said in Conversation with Okwui Enwezor in 2016, “I am more interested is how defining the idea of sculpture leads to breaking it down. I am more interested in the idea that film can be a sculpture, a drawing can be a sculpture, music can be a sculpture.” In Images in Debris she puts all the above together, as video clips and movies projected on the walls and on the objects while an otherworldly, ethereal music plays – like noises from the universe or underwater – that reminds me of the sound effects of Matthew Ritchie’s installation The Morning Line (Andalusian Center for Contemporary Art, Seville, 2008).

All the objects are cheap, ordinary pieces like empty plastic bottles, paint containers, used paper, glass or metal containers – but when Sze puts them in her installation, they suddenly gain value, the value of art. Ripped pieces of painted paper move by means of an unseen fan, while projected images occupy their surfaces, like a running cheetah, a young woman or a pie-graph. Beside a roll of toilet paper a real plant grows in a container, supported by full spectrum lights. Milliards of objects, papers and textiles create a crowded structure. A mirror placed in a container and covered with water goes through a metamorphosis under a sharp light and becomes the frozen ocean in Tarkovky’s Solaris when the astronaut sees the small lake of his youth in it. It also looks like mercury and changes the light effects on the ceiling. The debris in this installation is more than a collection of objects left around to annoy us. It has unlimited possibilities since all our encounters are unique. Our debris tells a lot about us, our tastes, culture, likings, personalities – our entire life is witnessed by those objects and encapsulated in them. They are an important part of our life. Without recognizing it we become intimately and emotionally attached to the objects we surround ourselves with, regardless of whether they are useful or not. It is this mixture of the psychological and physical, where memories share the platform with physical objects, that makes this installation so attractive. 

I was standing in front of the installation, very close. I must have zoned out for a few seconds like when you fall into that half-dream state. Then one piece of painted paper, part of the installation, moved slightly, touching me. I came to with a sudden shock, worried that I ruined the piece. What happened? What might have happened if I had fallen into this installation, like Alice through the rabbit hole? Will I, my being, be submerged into it? Will my remains, my memories become part of it? Does the possibility of it scare or delight me? Are we consuming the art or is it consuming us? It was a strange moment and I knew for sure that the magic had already happened and some invisible part of me remained on the piece of paper I had accidentally touched – and visa-versa. The hidden camera of my mind took a thousand shots and now stores them both in the conscious and subconscious. 

Then a blinding light came out from some hidden pocket of this installation and my shadow suddenly appeared on it. To be precise, the shadow of my lower body, from the waist down. It remained there until, as fast as it came, it disappeared again. Then another shadow of me, this time my upper body, appeared enlarged on one of the walls. So, wanting it or not, being paranoid about it or not, I was becoming part of the installation. You step into it; you step out of it, depending on the light, without your control; reminding us that our mind is not entirely our own. It is impossible not to be aware of your body’s reaction to this work. A panel from the Age of You, MOCA’s previous exhibition, came to my mind about panic and anxiety. Am I panicking as my generation should or experiencing anxiety like the Millennials? This installation is definitely anxiety inducing.

Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto
Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (New York and Los Angeles). Photo Toni Hafkenscheid

Sze’s “sculptures” are very complicated structures, that vibrate with projected images and light that fills them with life, making them a living thing that breathes and moves. Through this metamorphosis, mundane objects from daily life become otherworldly. Scale and size matter, lighting and projections matter. I wonder how something this complex could be created and then re-installed? We only can guess the artist’s thinking process behind it while we try to puzzle out the pieces in the exhibition. The installing of the work is specific and follows the original plan. Two people from Sarah Sze’s studio came to MOCA to install Images in Debris. They also involved some of MOCA’s staff and trained them to be able to maintain the piece as water would evaporate and need to be refilled. Sze was repeatedly in video conversation with the team and she changed certain parts and effects to adjust them to MOCA’s space – so the installation became site specific as well.

One of the best things about this installation is its complexity, its thousand little parts, related or unrelated to each other, their different medias, dark or shiny surfaces, vibrating with life or challenging the eye to see – making you walk around it or step closer to see its details. There’s so much to take in the eyes and ears are constantly multitasking, feeling overwhelmed. When I was a child, I fantasized about being locked in a museum, in my case the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest. To be surrounded by all the artwork in the semi-darkness and have everything right there to discover. Of course, that never happened but Sarah Sze’s installation gave me a real sense of how that would feel and I treasured every moment of it.

Images: Sarah Sze, Images in Debris, 2018, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (New York and Los Angeles). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

*Exhibition information: February 6 – until further notice, 2020, Museum of Contemporary Art, 158 Sterling Road, Toronto. The Museum is temporary closed.