An underground garden

Sculptor Sarah Sze twists time, space and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Nothing about the work of New York sculptor Sarah Sze (pronounced "Zee") is quite what it seems. Water bottles, thumbtacks, razor blades, and toilet paper take form as gracefully and fantastically as clay, marble or bronze. Then, as soon as you see the work as a sculpture, you notice a cracker or a car door, and you're back in the mundane world. Or as Sze puts it, "You're reading it as [an artistic] form; then you're reading it as something in your closet."

Her site-specific installations have, predictably, filled galleries and museums, but also typically artless spaces from public gardens to broom closets. Installations have flowed like waves of debris -- cars, furniture, Q-tips, you name it -- through rooms, doorways, and even windows.

They often appear too fragile to be self-supporting, leading the viewer to deduce the only logical reason for their tenuous suspension: they were caught up in a torrential wind ripping through the space when suddenly, due to a glitch in the laws of physics, time stopped, leaving the objects frozen in space.

It's hard to view Sze's work without the unnerving suspicion that time is playing games with you. It's that strange sense that you're looking at a scene plucked from the past and placed intact in the present, as if the scene had been suddenly fossilized. (Think Pompeii.)

Allowing Sze to play with your environment is, quite frankly, a bit disorienting (not to mention challenging, engaging and even entertaining) -- and one of the environments she has played with is in Southwest. Sze recently completed an installation, "Grow or Die 2002" in the Sage and John Cowles Conservatory, the flora-filled greenhouse in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 726 Vineland Pl.

Unlike the sprawling nature of her past work, this installation consists of three Plexiglas windows embedded in the Conservatory's floor, revealing sculptures that seem to spiral down beneath the building's foundation. There are no neon signs pointing to the sculptures or velvet ropes cordoning it off. Coming across the sculptures is something of a chance encounter, which Sze sees as crucial for the work.

"I think there is a kind of value that things that happen on their own without you planning them have," she said. "When you run into your friends on the street as opposed to meeting them, it's that kind of serendipity, that quality of chance that puts you into a different state of mind."

With random art encounters, she said, "it puts you in a different way of looking. It takes you out of your daily routine, [and out of] the 'museum head' that people can put on if they go into a museum."

All this "chance encounters" talk runs the risk of sounding a bit theoretical, but exploring these windows comes with a certain sense of wonder that you just don't find in a gallery.

Sze's windows feel like they're part of the building, and what is revealed below seems like a random discovery. Fiber-optic cables light up as if they where carrying information through the city. Gaps carved out of the Styrofoam base seem as if they were worn away by years of decay, and a colony of metal alligator clips seem to be sprouting plants (actually plastic), as if nature were overrunning them.

Staring down through the windows, the installation seems endless. You get lost in the twists and turns well before it hits bottom.

"I wanted the piece to feel like it continues so it doesn't have boundaries in the space," she said. "You can't really get your bearings on how deep it is or how far it goes, and [there's a sense] that you might be able to open up any place in the conservatory and find something like that."

Over the three-week installation process, Sze was struck by the sense of ownership local residents have over the Sculpture Garden. Now, she hopes that people will begin to see her work as an integral part of the setting.

"A good work of art lingers, and I hope that [visitors] come back to it," she said. "One of the nice things about [the garden] is that it is a place where a lot of people come back. . . . I think that works of art live on through storytelling. You could easily go through the place and not see them. So I hope that it will be told … and people would try to find them, and describe them."