BY SUE KUNIMATSU
Entering the lobby of McCaw Hall, opera and ballet-goers feel their gaze drawn upward by a white tornado. The 30-foot tall funnel has sucked up and scrambled the detritus of modern life, freezing it all within a light-as-air structure. Water bottles, potted plants, electric fans, carpenters’ tools and ladders spiral up to the ceiling. But we’re not in Kansas, we’re in Seattle, and the tornado is “An Equal and Opposite Reaction” the largest permanent work by sculptor Sara Sze. Installed in late July, suspended in McCaw Hall’s glass-walled lobby, it takes its place as one the most visible and intriguing pieces in a city rich with public art.
“McCaw Hall holds great value and significance for our city, our citizens and for our visitors from all over the world,” said Judy Whetzel, Chair of the Seattle Center Joint Visual Arts Committee. Seattle Center and the hall’s resident companies, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, sought a major work by an artist of international stature for this prominent location. At 36, Sarah Sze (pronounced “zee”) has achieved that stature with solo exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Fondation Cartier in Paris. In addition to the McCaw Hall piece, Sze has permanent installations at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, in Washington, D.C., and planned for the University of California at Berkeley. In 2003, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the “genius grant” of $100,000 annually for five years, to pursue her own work and interests.
A sculptor specializing in site-specific works, Sze creates three-dimensional collages of everyday objects. Her work integrates hundreds of small parts into larger forms of striking originality. She studied painting and architecture and both disciplines inform her approach to sculpture. Her pieces seem to grow from their sites, or move through the spaces they occupy. In describing “An Equal and Opposite Reaction,” she states that she “really based the piece on the location.” The main entrance to McCaw Hall is sheltered by a canopy from which audiences emerge into the multi-story volume of the lobby. Sze visualized a tornado pulling them up into the space.
Sze employs a wide range of materials in structures so complex it is sometimes hard to tell what holds them together. Her pieces are densely detailed and a great deal of thought goes into the views from different locations and angles. She uses found objects to pose questions about how things accrue value.
“I want people to question where the line between art and everyday life falls,” Sze says. “The artworks remind you, when you see the objects later, that they had a more exalted context.”
“An Equal and Opposite Reaction” is the product of a unique collaboration; the first public art work built by Seattle Opera’s Scenic Studio. Sze usually constructs her sculptures in her New York studio with the help of assistants. Daunted by the potential cost of shipping a large and complex piece across country, Sze and Seattle Center investigated local fabricators. She credits Visual Art Committee Chair Judy Whetzel with connecting her with the Scenic Studio. Their staff’s combination of construction experience and artistic sensibility offered an ideal skill set. Starting in February from one photomontage, Sze and the Scenic Studio crew built the piece in less than six months, installing it days before the opening of the Wagner “Ring” cycle, Seattle Opera’s international showcase.
John Humphrey and George Howard Jr. led a team of a dozen technicians and artisans at the Scenic Studio. Sze made four trips to Seattle during the construction, putting in intensive ten to twelve-hour workdays with the crew during each visit. Starting from the single photo, the 20-foot diameter steel and aluminum spiral was developed, literally setting the framework for the rest of the piece. When Sze was in New York, the crew e-mailed photos of their daily progress. Humphrey describes a collaborative process of day-to-day decision-making within the Scenic Studio, which won Sze’s confidence.
“They were able to interpret my ideas, how I wanted [the piece] to work with gravity, how I wanted it to move,” she says. Both Sze and Humphrey agree that their established working processes had a lot in common. The Scenic Studio is accustomed to designers who frequently visit and work with them on site. Sze found that she and the studio’s materials buyer used many of the same sources such as Home Depot and craft stores. The piece includes many objects found backstage: electrical conduit, junction boxes, extension cords, ladders, a variety of clamps and tools. All of the found objects were attached during Sze’s last visit to Seattle. The studio has a 35-foot ceiling and, although eight months pregnant, she spent hours lying on the floor pointing and placing the dozens of objects. A viewer will have to look more than once to recognize them all and that is Sze’s intention.
“The way that I approach sculpture is more like painting, improvisational,” she says. A yellow line turns out to be a carpenter’s level when viewed from another angle. Bright blue conduit may carry wires to a working fan or desk lamp, or it may be empty, just a curved blue line. Ladders of many sizes echo the stairways crossing and spiraling through McCaw Hall’s lobby. Some are real ladders cut up and reassembled into curves or angles, others are miniatures built to size. Once complete, the entire sculpture was cut into sections, like a stage set. It was moved from the Scenic Studio in Renton in about six pieces, and reassembled at Seattle Center.
Sze’s work is cutting-edge contemporary, without obvious visual references to her Asian heritage, but that heritage has influenced the direction of her career. Her father is Chinese and aspired to be an artist, but was discouraged by his own parents. Believing in the power of higher education and a profession as a defense against racism, he became an architect. As she studied art and art history, Sze recognized that being Asian would play a role in her work. She speaks thoughtfully of the difficult balance that ethnic and women artists face: the strength that comes from standing out while avoiding the pitfalls of “ghettoizing.” She points to cellist Yo-Yo Ma and architects I. M. Pei and Maya Lin as artists who succeed in both expressing and transcending ethnicity.
“When I was studying art, I was looking for role models,” she says. “I hope that I can be a role model for other Asian Americans to try professions that aren’t ‘safe’…You want to have the freedom to make the choices that everyone else has.” She undertook the McCaw Hall commission with an understanding of the important civic position the piece would occupy. At the front door of one of the city’s main arts venues, she wants it to be welcoming while reinforcing the sense of wonder one feels at an opera or ballet performance.
Many audience members will visit McCaw Hall and “An Equal and Opposite Reaction” repeatedly over time. One of Sze’s objectives was to create a piece that continually reveals new aspects of itself from different viewpoints at different times of day.
“You think you know the piece, then you discover something new on another visit, or the view changes from dusk to night,” she says hopefully. Humphrey confirms her success, with his observation,
“I still see things I haven’t seen before and I’ve been looking at it for five months.”