WALTHAM — Projections flash and chase each other around the walls of the Foster Gallery in the Rose Art Museum, at Brandeis University. In Plato’s allegorical cave, prisoners mistook shadows playing on the wall for real life. Like Plato’s cave, Sarah Sze’s installation “Timekeeper” asks us to consider what’s real.
Plato’s prisoners were ignorant, trapped in their cave and unaware that puppeteers were the source of the shadows. Unlike Plato, Sze does not withhold the mechanics of her projections. At the center of the darkened gallery, beckoning to visitors the way a glittering Emerald City drew Dorothy, a structure holding close to 50 projectors hums, clicks, and glows.
“There is nothing here that is hidden,” the artist says. “Art has smoke and mirrors, but in this case the mirrors and the smoke are all here.”
She stands in the flickering light of that central sculpture. It has a bay with three stools and . . . a countertop?
“It was my desk,” Sze says.
As projections shimmy across the distant walls like dreams, the sculpture pulls you in the way a single lamp on a desk in a dark room might. Intimate. Cozy.
On a hot day in early September, Sze has driven up for the show’s opening from her home in New York, where she lives with her husband, Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” and their two daughters. Sze’s an artist in high demand. In 2013, she was tapped to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and she showed there in 2015. This year she finishes a project for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority at the 96th Street subway station.
Her fragile installations — part sculpture, part architecture, part painting, part film — are built out of countless objects and fragments. They plumb how human perception changes in a world cluttered with information and stuff. “Timekeeper” takes time, and how we measure it, as its central theme.
Society and science keep track of time to the fractions of a second; we live our lives according to an agreed-upon calendar.
In our heads, though, time is capricious. It’s more like Sze’s projections of animals and water and video static skittering over the walls, blinking on and off, one picture overtaking the next, the way memories are flashpoints that mark life’s passage.
“Think of what happened in 1985,” says Sze, who was born in Boston in 1969, and grew up here. “Every year I get older, my memory changes. Time is measured in this very mercurial way.
Paradoxically, Sze has carefully timed her projections to achieve that mercurial quality. Each appears for one minute, and disappears for another. They travel over the wall at different speeds. They’re not synchronized. It might take days or more before a single pattern of images would repeat itself.
“People will think they’ve seen it, and they won’t have,” she says.
Christopher Bedford, who recently left his position as director of the Rose to take the helm at the Baltimore Museum of Art, curated “Timekeeper.”
‘There is nothing here that is hidden. Art has smoke and mirrors, but in this case the mirrors and the smoke are all here.’
“I don’t think I’ve encountered an artwork that deals with time so profoundly since Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock,’” Bedford says. Marclay’s film (on view Sept. 17- Jan. 29 at the Museum of Fine Arts) ticks through 24 hours by sampling references to time from films.
“But ‘The Clock’ is about the way we measure time,” Bedford adds, “and this is about the way we remember life.”
Sze’s rush of images may feel like memory, but they also fly by in a way similar to how we communicate through pictures now, via Instagram and Snapchat.
“How do I find meaning with the plethora of images we have grown to accept as experience?” Sze asks.
Her projections — on the wall and on the desk — reference Eadweard Muybridge, Harold “Doc” Edgerton, and a history of moving pictures. They include satellite images inching around with jumpy cursors, footage from a train window she shot with her iPhone, and even shadows on the walls.
“They, in effect, become part of our visual vocabulary,” Sze says. “They can be overwhelming and also familiar. It’s a place you recognize, but also [invites] critical questioning.”
Plato would approve — but is any of it any more tangible than his shadow plays? Is Instagram?
On line, Sze says, “you can see, you can calculate, you can explain, but I think it’s misguided and it leads to isolation, loneliness, and a lack of texture.”
Texture comes to “Timekeeper” in the unpredictability of the projections. More directly, it’s in the central sculpture, where pictures beam onto torn scraps of paper, books are stacked on a stool, and plants sit on the desk.
Then there’s the sheer delicacy of that sculpture, which houses a metal armature, a mirror, countless stray pieces of paper, and those dozens of projectors.
“It’s built to be precarious,” says Sze. “The sculptural language is all about gravity, and playing with things that slip or fall.”
With “Timekeeper” the artist seeks to trigger in viewers something like those remembered moments that shape our lives: a lush and deeply felt experience, one that changes us. An experience every bit as real as today’s date, but harder to quantify.
“It goes back to how do you create a moment in the string of time,” Sze says. “You’re making [the art] for the moment, and hoping it will have a conversation that will multiply through time. That moment is only realized in retrospect.”
SARAH SZE: TIMEKEEPER
At Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, through Dec. 11. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/roseCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.