In 1972, John Berger’s revealing TV series and subsequent book, Ways of Seeing, began by discussing the changing ways we experience art through the then-recent innovation of color televisions in the home. Berger stated that “we see these paintings as no one has ever seen them before… Your wallpaper is around them, your window is in front of them, your carpet is under them. You are seeing them in the context of your own life.
More than 50 years later, as smartphone users, we are able to access unlimited works of art at a time. As Berger pointed out, “an image that is reproduced can be seen in a million different places at once,” so how do we absorb the sheer amount of information available for consumption today?
All artists react to the times they live in. But, for me, it is the American Sarah Sze who acutely translates the abundance of images into visual form. Through its planetarium-like structures, ecosystems built with everyday objects (often made with the same objects used to build the structure we are looking at – ladders, wires, scissors), or kaleidoscopic worlds with moving image projections, it offers us a glimpse in the proliferation of information that we experience on a daily basis.
How many people in the Louvre are watching Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa through their screens?
Meticulously arranged, yet composed of structures that appear to be blitzed and shattered, Sze’s works are essentially a collage: of paint, sculpture and architecture, as well as the advertisements we are constantly fed on, the components that make up our screens. (In her book of essays, Feel Free, Zadie Smith discusses how, during a visit to Sze’s studio, her children likened the works to a “sort of exploded iPhone.”) But Sze also includes everyday objects ( plants, clocks, chairs, screens), videos projected on nature (water, fire, earth) and traditional artistic materials (paints, prints, photographs), as if to challenge the very idea of what art can be.
Sze’s structures – precariously held together with sticks, as if they belonged to the fragility of life – renounce any artistic convention. Without a clear indication of where a work begins and ends, as we circumnavigate it, our perspective constantly changes as the works are nearly impossible to comprehend all at once. I compare them to Manhattan: we can see it whole from afar, but when you’re in it, our point of view changes from second to second.
I have visited Sze’s current exhibition, Timelapse, at the Guggenheim in New York three times. With each visit I have seen new images, projections, structures and tools. When I am first struck by his works I can be overwhelmed, but as I walk around and through them, they allow me to realize that the images in our lives are constantly in motion. Even the screen I’m typing on changes rapidly with the number of letters I add or subtract or the notifications that ping.
Composer Philip Glass said that, for him, music is like “an underground river – it’s always there… You don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it goes. The only difference is whether you are listening to it or not. Sze’s sculptures also maintain their frenetic presence whether we look at them or not. Time is integrated into the experience: we suddenly notice the projection of a bird flying onto a wall next to us; the sound of white noise.
They push the viewer to reevaluate our physical, emotional or sensory experiences with art and the world at large, making us understand that memory is manipulated through images. Today we are constantly documenting life through our smartphones, which means that Sze (born 1969), myself (1994), and someone born in recent years, will each have very different understandings of our lives through photographs.
Since the beginning of 2021, I have been meticulously keeping a journal to try and capture memories, experiences and emotions. I also do this when I am faced with art: I download everything I see, how the work made me feel, otherwise it will be forgotten. Unsurprisingly, these artworks are ones I retain a far greater understanding of, as opposed to ones I simply snapped on my iPhone. This also makes me wonder how much art we are experiencing through this 3×6 inch portrait created by our phones? How many people in the Louvre are watching Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa through their screens?
Berger states that “the original paintings are still unique…they look different than they do on the television screen or on postcards…reproductions distort.” Through his laboratory-like worlds of shattered images, Sze allows me to attempt to understand how we are consuming images. But he also makes me wonder, due to the abundance of technology, whether we are missing out on the sensory experience of seeing art or being in the world at large.