Just off the heels of the ambitious “Triple Point” exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Sarah Sze’s installation at The Philadelphia Fabric Workshop and Museum presents a quieter, less frenetic side of the artist than one would expect. Known for her intricate, site-specific installations that incorporate common materials – painter’s tape, paper coffee cups, bits of paper, plastic zip ties, string – to create exuberant architectural tornados, Sze subdues the storm to a deep breath in her first solo exhibition in the Philadelphia area.

As the FWM’s 2013 Artist-in-Residence, Sze took advantage of the museum’s facilities and reputation as a laboratory for artist experimentation. On the 1st, 2nd and 8th floors of the downtown Philadelphia museum, the artist transformed each gallery into a uniquely engineered viewing experience. Though each installation is distinctive, all three simultaneously transport the viewer out of physical reality to anchor them to the present moment. Sze tackles themes of time, scale, gravity, and artifice throughout the show and uses materials like newspaper, tape, electrical cords, and screen-prints throughout.

Sze1 Sarah Sze at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (installation view, first floor), 2013. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. 

On the 1st floor, the wooden desk that marks the liminal space between entrance and main gallery has been staged to allow a moment of transition between the real world and the artist’s world in the gallery beyond. Once you have entered, a new set of overhead gallery lighting and curved floor lamps are incorporated into a desk-like set that mirrors the one we’ve just passed, and serve as a beacon to draw us into the main gallery. Built out of wire frame boxes and fragments of a ceramic mold of the original desk, this deconstructed version is strewn with remnants of the creative process that might take place in such a space. Yet, this reimagined workspace manages to reference both the physical furniture we can feel and the internal filing system we envision.

Stepping out of the elevator on the second floor, the gallery opens up into a completely different experience. The large gallery is brightly lit and filled with an assortment of rocks and boulders, though as you maneuver through the field, they quickly reveal themselves to be screen-printed paper shells. Leaning against the far wall are a series of canvases screen printed in cyan, magenta, yellow and a range of grays to black, each with the same flattened photographic image of lichen on the surface of a rock. As is often the case in her work, Ms. Sze has not attempted to conceal her process but leaves it right out in the open for us to see, challenging us to question our willing acceptance of artifice in our perception of the world.

Sze4Sarah Sze at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (installation view, eighth floor), 2013. Mixed media. Dimensions variable.

One of Sarah Sze’s great talents is for considering the viewer in a holistic way, creating spaces that feel intimately familiar and envelop us, rather than merely presenting us with objects or images, and she does this expertly in the 8th floor gallery. This space is dimly lit and quiet, with the noise from the street dampened by the distance. On the floor, crisp front pages of The New York Times lay in a dense grid that loosens up into a wider expanse as it runs back through the space, like a drawing in two-point perspective. The pages are recent, serving as a diary that marks each day of the piece’s making. On each page the photos have been replaced by monochrome images of sand or sea or snow, disorienting us from the images we associate with the current news. Running along side the grid on the floor are industrial orange extension cords plugged into cheap dorm room desk lamps, as though we have stumbled into a student’s studio.

Despite her international acclaim and rising stardom in the art world, Sze imbibes most of her work with a searching, student quality. Seams are visible and messy, the materials are found or mundane, and the construction comes across as flexible, though all this is orchestrated for the audience. The openness in the work, which allows the viewer to see the artist’s process, is very seductive to today’s audiences because it registers and reflects all types of participation. Even our breath and movements in the gallery affect subtle changes to the work, suggesting a distinctively feminine brand of intimacy that traditional sculpture and painting often lacks.

This exhibition is convincing, clearly intentioned, yet subdued. I appreciate the opportunity to experience an introspective side of Sze’s work, and it is obvious that her residency with the Fabric Workshop and Museum encouraged exploration of the au courant topics of environmentalism, consumerism, and politics. FWM routinely encourages its residents to rephrase the question, “is this art?” in their own way, and to present challenging works to its viewers. In “Sarah Sze at the Fabric Museum and Workshop,” the artist undertakes a serious and almost languid investigation of a number of tactile and pictorial elements, but leaves the ultimate question for the audience to answer.

Featured Image:  Sarah Sze. Sarah Sze at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (installation view, second floor), 2013. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. In collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. All Photos: Tom Powel Imaging. Courtesy of the artist.

* Author Rachel Sitkin is an artist, writer, and curator. She recently relocated from Baltimore to Philadelphia, PA.