Lauren Elizabeth Cunningham


Sarah Sze at the High Museum of Art

The final artwork viewers encounter in Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013 is Sarah Sze's Book of Parts (2012). An internationally-renowned artist, Sze certainly merits inclusion in this who's-who exhibition of twentieth-century artists. However, the evolution of modern art that the show aims to illustrate may not be enough to prepare viewers for its grand finale.

Whereas the other three-dimensional works in Fast Forward are singular, contained forms (i.e. Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Jeff Koons' Pink Panther, and C├ęsar Baldaccini's The Yellow Buick), Book of Parts is multifarious and sprawling. A web of shelves and wooden boards reaching from wall to wall and floor to ceiling is lined with thousands of objects, few larger than a milk carton. Overall, the structure vaguely resembles, as its title suggests, the text-filled pages of an open book.

Like a book, Sze's installation should not be judged by its cover. At a distance, the shelves appear cluttered with mundane items, but a closer look reveals the opposite. Many objects have been tediously handcrafted, such as paper feathers, flowers and insects. Furthermore, within the larger collection, like things have been grouped together. Letters clipped from newspapers have been sorted into boxes, and eggs cut from paper have been arranged from largest to smallest. There is evidence of some method to the madness.

Exactly what Sze's method is remains elusive. What is her rationale for including these artifacts and displaying them as they are? Imagining a plausible scenario that accounts for the diversity of items and their arrangement would be futile. Instead, viewers should accept the compendium of "stuff" as a reflection of the complex nature of contemporary life. They should also admire the artist for masterfully preserving the tension between the chaos and order that defines human existence.

Sze has also captured the fragility of life in Book of Parts. The entire construction teeters at an angle to the floor plane, balancing precariously on sticks or stacks of objects. Durable items have been made delicate, like hammers formed out of paper, or a felt-wrapped single-edge razor blade. Connection points have also been softened. For example, many objects rest on blue or grey felt pads, and the two points where wood boards connect with the gallery walls are cushioned by a t-shirt and a pillow. These visual elements draw attention to the thin line that separates stability and instability, life and death.

Book of Parts is a portrait of human existence and its hard-to-explain truths. The installation tells the story of every man and woman while also illustrating moments in Sarah Sze's life. Autobiographical references include plane tickets from Sze's travels, soaps from the hotels at which she has lodged, and even the Breeze Card and High Museum visitor's badge from her visit to Atlanta. These personal touches humanize an installation that may not readily appeal to viewers but is very much about them.