The Seattle Opera always puts its best face forward for its internationally-renowned performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This year, besides the attractions of the opera itself, Ring audiences will be the first members of the public to experience a brand new lobby sculpture by New York artist Sara Sze, entitled Equal and Opposite Reaction. The piece, a 35-foot tall extravaganza fashioned by the Opera scenic shop in long-distance collaboration with the artist, hangs from the McCaw hall ceiling like a traditional chandelier. There is nothing the least bit traditional about the piece itself, however. To guide us through its complexities, we’re joined by KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
A classic theme of European Baroque art is the Assumption of the Virgin, compositions where a beaming Mary is carried up to Heaven in vast altarpieces filled with movement, lush detail, and a sensation of energy and excitement. A swirl of clouds, angels, onlookers, and musical celebrants usually surrounds the main event, while the whole enterprise is prevented from spinning off into chaos by an elaborate underlying structure.
Assumption painting and sculpture has fallen on hard times in recent years — as has the general reputation of the Baroque — but there’s something that brings both to mind in the giant white extravaganza by Sara Sze now permanently in place as the centerpiece of Seattle’s McCaw Hall. The genius of Sze, now officially enshrined as one of the leading young artists of her generation, is her ability to assemble vast arrays of unlikely materials into strangely compelling works, works in which lighthearted whimsy and conceptual sophistication vie for supremacy, and the spirit of the Baroque can be said to live on.
There is no shortage of both whimsy and sophistication in the current work. The piece is essentially a sort of giant vortex of smaller, mostly metallic pieces, all spiraling upwards from a tightly packed funnel close to the floor, widening outwards as it ascends, and finally exploding into sort of an epiphany as it approaches the ceiling, where the work widens out into huge metallic loops, and artistically-bent hardware store stepladders dance their way to heaven.
Most of the sculpture is constructed out of an elaborate white aluminum lattice, made up of thousands of small welded horizontal and vertical strips and suggesting, in the current context, the elements of a gigantic musical staff. If this dominating skeletal framework is staff, what amounts to musical notes are thousands of brightly colored, everyday objects which populate the skeleton in carefully arranged groupings. None of these elements occurs just once, but can be followed as they reappear like musical motifs throughout the piece.
Take the alligator clips, for example. Starting from the very bottom of the sculpture, just above the ground floor, orange clamps and clips of various sizes grip onto the sculpture at nearly every level, their bright plastic color visible throughout the white framework, like markers allowing us to follow the twists and turns of the piece. Besides providing some zippy color, these clamps both celebrate and mock their own functionality. At times they really do serve an important structural role, as when several of them fasten thin horizontal wires to the larger framework, wires which balance a blue plastic cup at one end and a single artificial flower at the other. More frequently the clips serve no function at all, latched onto the various reaches of the sculpture as though hanging on for dear life, like someone attempting to grab hold of a cloud.
There is a long list of similar store-bought elements which populate the sculpture, used for both metaphoric and compositional effect. Large tape measures hang downwards, fully extended, like stalagmites; blue water bottles specially selected by the artist range upwards, helpfully accompanied by yellow and blue plastic drinking cups. Ascending rows of carpenter’s levels provide a horizontal counterpoint to the inherent instability and verticality of the work, while plastic ferns, flowers, and painted branches are the only literal referents to the natural world — often attached to the sculpture by the intermediary of the ever-present yellow clips. Ferns and plastic cups sit inside, for some reason, the otherwise empty blue birdcages, and here and there hundreds of colored pushpins rest in metal pans, perhaps awaiting some more particular use at a later stage of the work’s evolution — because above all else, it seems very literally like a work in progress.
When the biblical Jacob had his celestial vision, it famously involved ladders. Here ladders and stairways, often in miniature, do their bit to lead our eye relentlessly upwards, and it is significant that the entire work begins with a ladder at its lowest reaches, and ends with a ladder at its highest point. In the 35 feet in-between, various other ladders and stairs twist, bend, and collide. Who said ascensions were simple? Although other Sze works have included similar elements, one is here reminded of the backstage ladders that are key tools in the art of the theater, as well as serving the Opera technicians who built and hung the current piece.
An important part of the commission was the creation of an artwork that would stand up to repeated viewings. This the artist has clearly done, nearly to a fault. As demonstrated by her earlier work, Sze is comfortable working with huge numbers of individual elements. In the current installation, with so many possible vantage points as one mounts the stairs, or circulates through the surrounding lobby, there are nearly unlimited opportunities to puzzle over and discover the inspired, repetitive minutia that is the work’s strongest feature.
In fact, the sculpture works best when viewed close-up, when we can be swept up in its internal world. From a distance, and particularly when viewed against the lobby’s outer glass wall, the mostly white work lacks clear materiality, failing to hold up against its light surroundings, undermining its ability to truly anchor the surrounding space, or be experienced and enjoyed as a monumental sculptural form. Other Sze works have used color as a more dominant element — I wish that was the case here.
In choosing Sara Sze to animate the pleasant, but rather bland space of the McCaw lobby, the Seattle Arts Commission and its assembled experts made an inspired choice — someone whose work is as eccentric, bristling, complicated, and eventful as the surrounding space is smooth, tasteful, and predictable. It is certainly a major, and perhaps even a great piece, and immediately joins the front ranks of public artworks in this still very evolving young city. Its musical, uplifting theme and Baroque sensibility is completely appropriate for the theater it will now personify.