Making it Matter: Transforming the Trivial
Flavin, Sze, Numen/For Use

by Allison Krier

Several years ago when I lived in the gusty metropolis of Chicago, I became a gallery guide at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For my very first official tours I led visitors through a retrospective on the work of Dan Flavin. These were some of my most successful tours. It was not only that I truly admired his work and pontificated convincingly and enthusiastically (hopefully, and as I would like to remember it), but it is as well the triumph of Flavin’s assemblages, their sensorial and experiential power. The glowing fluorescent light tubes, easily procured at hardware stores in the standardized 2-, 4-, 6-, 8-foot strips, became, with Flavin’s astuteness, distinctive and radiant installations at the intersection of painting, sculpture, and architecture. For his first installation, he mounted one light tube nakedly to a wall, and then progressed, pushing the material to more intricate configurations of atmospheric color and light. That exhibition was a striking dichotomy, being not only historical as a posthumous retrospective of the artist’s work over decades, but also in its electric modernity; the light tubes were a radical artistic material in the sixties. Flavin became a base, an opening for me. His work to me was archetypal, reconceptualizing the materiality of art while making at once abstract and visceral reference to many aspects of painting and architecture. It is often the remarkable use of materials that draws us to an artwork, the medium that interprets and negotiates the loftier concepts and capacities of human creativity.

Dan Flavin, greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), 1966 Green flourescent light First section: 4 ft (122 cm) high, 20 ft (610 cm) wide Panza Collection, 1991 91.3705 Photo: David Heald SRGF, NY

Dan Flavin, greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green), 1966
Green flourescent light
First section: 4 ft (122 cm) high, 20 ft (610 cm) wide
Panza Collection, 1991
Photo: David Heald SRGF, NY

It is the poetry of things, and the world is made up of remnants, detritus – stuff, both organic and synthetic. Artistic production can spring from the most prosaic and trivial, and the invention of craft follows suit. One’s trash is another’s treasure. The modern artists’ romance with bits and miscellany began earlier in the twentieth century. The Dadaists appropriated everyday objects, reclaiming them for art’s sake–an exalted white porcelain urinal, torn paper scraps rendered via collage (see Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters). In post-WWI Europe, the upheaval and anxiety of fragmented, war-ravaged surroundings paved the way for new perceptions on art and its place in a mechanized modern world. But to fast forward…we are ever increasingly in thrall of commercially manufactured and digitized daily surroundings and interactions generating new forms of exploitation. Nowadays the revelry of trivial, cheap materials has become routine, and yet the infinite possibilities for any material are overlooked, and it is the role of the artist and designer to be original and resolute as a practitioners. American artist Sarah Sze and the Viennese-based Croatian-Austrian art and design collaborative Numen/For Use are well placed within the evolution of this paradigm. Within their work, new representations of our contemporary consciousness and enhanced perceptions of our reality are translated through the commonplace.

Sarah Sze is a master of synergy. As contrasted with Flavin’s relentless use of one material, in Sze’s work there is a union of numerous disparate objects. The matter-of-fact – a ubiquitous plastic water bottle, a table fan, a potted plant, books, or that flashlight from the utility drawer –is harmoniously reimagined. Stuff is gathered, sometimes manipulated and meticulously arranged into an intricate system, an otherworldly scheme so preoccupied with itself, yet also somehow outwardly confrontational as they extend from within. They are consequences of her making, of her hands attentively orchestrating the components. In Sze’s multifarious realms are layers of both well-planned strategy and sensation. A Certain Slant (2007) and Tilting Planet (2006) each present a calamity of items with vibrancy spilling out from the variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Her compositions are driven by the nature of the site divulging her process-driven ideas. Sze often uses local materials—casing out grocery stores, bodegas and other commercial enterprises as well as sundry objects from her own life, like castaway carry-out containers. Like Flavin, her works traverse disciplines. She is by training a painter, and her adept faculties and vivid conceptualizations, is frequently what is expected of artists–skill and imagination resulting in the extraordinary, emotive, surprising.

              Sarah Sze,  A Certain Slant , 2007, mixed media, dimensions variable

              Sarah Sze, A Certain Slant, 2007, mixed media, dimensions variable

And Sze draws. Her works on paper demonstrate her dexterity with the fundamentals. Line and form are finely articulated, envisioning convoluted worlds, as in Tailspin (2009) and Blue Flock (2005). In this way she composes her three-dimensional works – with an emphasis on contour over mass, and a more inherent relationship to drawing than sculpture. My first in-person experience with Sze’s work was at the same Chicago museum. Proportioned to the Groove (2005) called forth something strangely otherworldly, although constructed of several objects that could have easily been culled from my own apartment. There was a certain personal satisfaction experiencing these sorts of objects couched in a new light, in a milieu of the fantastic.

Sarah Sze,  Proportioned to the Groove , 2005 Mixed media, dimensions variable Installation View,  Fluidity of Time: Selections from the MCA Collection , MCA Chicago, 2005-2006

Sarah Sze, Proportioned to the Groove, 2005
Mixed media, dimensions variable
Installation View, Fluidity of Time: Selections from the MCA Collection, MCA Chicago, 2005-2006

Much intertwines within Sze’s installations. Mirroring life’s intricacies, inventions and contradictions her arrangements seem ostensibly chaotic and uncontained, but are also compositionally structured. They are collections of minutiae, but also burst macrocosmically beyond traditional art borders. Taut strings soar and span across supports and surfaces and objects dangle, stack, spiral. These fanciful elements are often arrayed like categorical specimens in a lab– rodent-like creatures placed in a lineup – but alongside the regimentation is a spirit of improvisation, an intimate performance with material. Sze expresses related gratitude--“I think for me the most rewarding part of the process is midway through when I’m surprised by what’s happening. I’m very willing to completely revise projects after I’ve started. It’s an openness being able to say, ‘This is what the piece needs’.” Her visual universes have a whiff of the scientific about them, and in that way they give the impression of seriousness, but they’re whimsical too. There is something delightfully silly about erector set-like mini structures floating above styrofoam cups and a house plant, as depicted in Proportioned to the Groove. 

Numen/For Use are alchemists transforming the mundane into the provocative. Renowned for their bold theatrical set design and installations of simple materials, the collaborative navigates the border between art and design to thrilling ends, echoing Flavin’s and Sze’s agendas. The Croatian group was founded in 1998 by the then recently graduated industrial designers Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radelijkovic, originally adopting the name For Use. Numen, alluding to Kant’s ideas on the transformative possibilities of an object, was integrated later to reflect their collective endeavors, departing from a stricter definition of industrial design practice to pursue more singular prospects. They began to immerse themselves in the underground art and club scenes, soaking up the inspiration. Their renowned designs for the stage are more than mere backdrops that reinforce the narratives. They incorporate sometimes unexpectedly interactive elements--as with the deep red swags hung for the Midsummer Night’s Dream production at the Gavella Drama Theatre in Zagreb, Croatia in 2008.

Rooted in many of the formal tenets of Modernism, Numen/For Use’s reductive approach is a critical pursuit of form and material. Initiated in 2008, early installations involved the construction of entire forms from copious amounts of clear packing tape, a slyly imaginative use of a utilitarian and disposable substance. Somewhere between large-scale sculpture and architectural fantasy, these conceptions arrive like alien organisms in atriums and outdoor plazas carving out cavernous interior environments. They are intended to be wholly experienced, to be inhabited, playful impromptu, metaphysical inventions geared toward amusement, departure from quotidian life, propelling a range of movement – crawling, kneeling, reclining. Structurally formidable, transformed, imprinted through the activities that transpire within. These kinetic playgrounds are like experiential documents, as demonstrated with this past summer’s installation at the Palais de Tokyo and in previous displays at the Odeon in Vienna (2010) and at the Wacoal in Tokyo (2013), activating improvisation by those who participate and migrate through the interiors.

Process is often an idiosyncratic effort, and each of Numen/For Use's tape installation emerges within its own specific course of action. Christoph Katzler elucidates this and their own surprise with the capabilities of tape as they executed their first initiative, "We started to connect the different anchor points with longitudinal lines of tape, then we spun in radial motions, then straight again, then back to the radial motion, and so on and so on. The radial lines are important to slowly shrink the layers of tape into the desired free form shapes...The process was also a remarkable coincidence with each stretch and positioning of the tape fitting serendipitously with the next easily." There was also an astonishing realization with how the hollowed forms could indeed support people and be interactive. Katlzer also appreciates the environmental impact on the tape, specifically from sun light, which causes yellowing making it appear more like an natural substance. 

Installation View, Palais de Tokyo, 2015Installation View, Palais du Tokyo, Paris, 2015 Image courtesy Numen/For Use

Installation View, Palais de Tokyo, 2015Installation View, Palais du Tokyo, Paris, 2015
Image courtesy Numen/For Use

Installation detail, Palais du Tokyo, 2015 Image courtesy Numen/For Use

Installation detail, Palais du Tokyo, 2015
Image courtesy Numen/For Use

These organic installations also unearth the dormant. Beyond Kant, numen has primordial connotations, an evocative link to the notion of the grotto. I’m reminded of the caves of Lascaux, where early tribal cultures left marks of their experiences in the hollows, a first inkling of interiority and expressive personalization. A section within the storied caves of Santa Cruz, Argentina displays numerous handprints covering the rock wall’s surface, mark making of human confrontation with the environment and a nascent correlation between spirituality and physicality. Participants in Numen/For Use’s spectacles might find an authentically visceral parallel to these ancestral expressions. Although the objectives and materials are part of our modern context, they exemplify a struggle whereas the primitive must coexist with present and future. We are closer to the past than we think, and artistic output is an expression of our collective spirit. Perhaps contemporary civilization is merely a veneer, a facade.  

As my eyes take a turn through my modest New York City apartment, I spy artifacts of my day-to-day existence, arranged and organized. Objects that are seemingly inconsequential are actually vital, rendering a picture of my sphere of life. A life made tangible through ordinary things.

Numen/For Use's Tube Innsbruck, a 3D network made of stitched safety netting will be installed at the Austrian gallery until October 10.

Installations by Sarah Sze are on view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery through October 17.

Sze quotation source:
“The Line between Drawing and Sculpture: An Interview with Sarah Sze, Melissa Chiu,” 2011. Printed in Sarah Sze Infinite Line, Asia Society Museum, 2012.