by Megan Hines
“People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.”
So begins the short story “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Visit from the Goon Squad. The statement is one of several hundred in the book whose simplicity belies the story’s narrative complexity and ambiguity. It proved accurate on the night of November 12th, as a surprisingly cheerful Egan sat down with artist Sarah Sze at 192 Books in Chelsea in a tête-à-tête to discuss the pairing of their respective work in the newly published catalog of Sze’s Triple Point, recently on view at the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
For those unable to visit the Biennale, the catalog acts not just as an overview of Sze’s site-specific sculptural installation, but as a book capable of standing on its own thanks to the inclusion of insightful essays and its bold juxtaposition of art and literature. In addition to an introduction by co-curators Carey Lovelace and Holly Block and an essay by Johanna Burton, the catalog features “Black Box” and a transcript from Egan’s visit to Sze’s studio in September 2012, in which author and artist compare and contrast goals and working methods.
“Black Box” and Triple Point approach overlapping motifs from different frames of reference, establishing an impossible simultaneity. What initially seems a haphazard combination proves to be both disorienting and productive, a theme present in both Egan’s and Sze’s work. On the surface, Egan’s narrative is a field guide for American female spies infiltrating crime circles by wooing powerful men with their beauty. She undermines the simplicity of form, however, by allowing the personal and the general, the present and the past to intermingle and coexist. Narrative voice and timeframe become nebulous concepts. Similarly, Sze’s sculptural combinations of simple everyday objects undermine the objects’ form in the service of both defining and challenging architectural space. The familiar loses its accepted functional significance while gaining value within a new system.
Between “Black Box” and Triple Point, multiple transecting concepts interlace to form a complex web of ideas. The concept of beauty in particular emerges as a subversive theme in both. Egan’s “beauties” are literally subversive, spying on powerful crime bosses in the service of their country. But they also upend the concept of beauty itself by intentionally inhabiting and exploiting that which is understood to be natural and effortless. Their inherent beauty combined with the affectation of beauty adds complexity to an idea purported to be simple and universal.
Triple Point similarly subverts normative beauty through its manipulation of the space of the US Pavilion. Sze repurposes emergency exits as the main entrance and exit, reorienting the central plan of the Palladian-inspired building. She also challenges the building’s sense of scale by adding walls and focusing on extraneous space, using a storage closet for one of her main installations. The classic differentiation between indoor and outdoor space is blurred with mirrors and the intrusion of garden material into her final sculpture. Sze’s immersive environment denies the architecture its conventional classic beauty in favor of a new system which sets its own standards.
This is not to reduce Egan’s and Sze’s works down to an easy one-to-one ratio; to do so would destroy the productive gaps between them. It may be that the title of the sculpture and catalog, Triple Point, is the most apt description of the phenomenon occurring between Egan’s and Sze’s work. Triple point is the specific temperature and pressure at which three states (gas, liquid, solid) of a certain matter co-exist. In this one unlikely moment, a substance exists in three distinct states. Within this catalog and the exhibition itself, a web of concepts impossibly inhabit Egan’s unconventional short story and Sze’s immersive sculpture simultaneously while maintaining their distinct format. The juxtaposition of form throws into relief overlapping content that might otherwise remain latent within the work.
Megan Hines is an MA candidate in the Art History program at Hunter College.