WALTHAM — People smoke because it allows them to step outside time – or at least, what time has lately become; what humans have made of it.
Sure, there are other reasons. But the connection between breathing, burning, and billowing smoke is potent, and we betray the reality of the phenomenon if we ascribe it all to chemical addiction, evil marketing, or Freudian phalluses — oops! fallacies.
Footage of mysteriously billowing smoke and burning flames stands out among thousands of other projected images in Sarah Sze’s “Timekeeper,” an installation at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. There are also digital clocks, rippling waves, Egyptian pyramids, and slowed-down footage of birds flying, cheetahs running, buildings being demolished, and liquids splashing.
The installation, in the Rose’s Foster Gallery, is one of two major works by Sze on show at the museum. The other is a site-specific wall drawing using snap-line chalk and small pieces of colored tape. Both are absorbing. In different ways, both subtly highlight the hidden, accelerating rhythms around which the thickening complexity of our lives are structured.
Now 47, Sze represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Two years later, as an invited artist, she made one of the more memorable contributions to the next one. She is a brilliant, continually surprising artist, who uses transparent means and everyday materials – tape, pegs, paper, paint, stones, and her signature blue string – to manufacture magic.
Sze’s touch is light. But she has crafty ways of manipulating modes of attention. Her ad hoc, furtive-seeming sculptures don’t just occupy unusual spaces – ledges, basins, cracks in centuries-old brick walls – they usher us outside the rigid rhythms of time we internalize into eddying currents of contemplation, temporal undertows.
Perhaps all good art does this. But Sze does it with an unusual repertoire of poetic sleights of hand, and a manner of address that is uncannily pure.
“Timekeeper” is an experiential piece. You cross a large, dark gallery to get closer to a weird construction that includes a trestle table, stools, a stepladder, stacked metal cubes, office plants, metal pegs, bottled water, small fans, a metronome, digital clocks, and more.
This almost arbitrary accretion of stuff is illuminated by desk lamps, and images projected onto torn paper. Other projectors, meanwhile – many of them rotating – throw images onto the surrounding gallery walls.
Trying to take it all in, you alternate between peering in at the visually busy structure, with its barrage of footage, its whirring projector noises, and its high-pitched dripping sound, and facing out to follow the images that slow, then accelerate around the room.
The preponderance of moving images triggers a kind of surrender that is unusual in Sze’s work, and to my mind slightly weakens it. Usually her work is so subtle, and so enigmatically objective, that the aesthetic payoff is greater than the felt manipulation. Here, it’s the other way around.
It’s as if Sze has let her intricate conceptual thinking about the way time is experienced today – especially in relationship to the virtual world – cloud her work’s usual lucidity. That said, it’s a beguiling installation, and fun to think about in relationship to other works about time by contemporary artists, including Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” William Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time,” and even Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors.”
The second work by Sze, “Blue Wall Moulting,” covers the outward-facing wall along the stairs that lead down to the Foster Gallery. Straight, snap-line blue chalk lines traverse the wall horizontally and vertically. Squares of tape attached to the wall are color-coded to indicate whether the lines are structural supports or electrical wiring.
It is amazing (or maybe not so amazing, if you are a builder or architect) to consider the complexity behind even a simple smooth wall in a contemporary building; also, to feel how far this complexity seems to take us from the modernist architectural ethos of transparency and truth-to-materials.
As if to remind us of this ethos, Sze has left an array of the materials she used to make the drawing on a ledge by the facing window. It’s a nod to process, the equivalent of a Brechtian “alienation effect” in theater, or of that arch 1960s cinema cliché of the camera panning back to show us the film set.
Other artists – most notably Boston’s August Ventimiglia – have done more original things with snap-line chalk. Many will also think of the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. But Sze’s “Blue Wall Moulting” is a smart conceit, rigorously carried out, and strangely beautiful to behold. It certainly slows you down. And it’s much better for you than smoking.
SARAH SZE: TIMEKEEPER
At Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose