Sarah Sze at McCaw Hall: raising the spirit level

Sarah Sze's installation at McCaw Hall, "An Equal and Opposite Re-action," engages every law of motion except inertia.

The 30-foot-tall spiral is suspended from the ceiling of the five-story lobby. White-powder-coated aluminum parts - little ladders, rods, ramps, gridlike orbs - are welded into a fragile-looking scaf- folding. As if caught in an updraft, everyday objects are stuck in the framework. Heavy-duty orange extension cords lie coiled in grid baskets; 25-foot yellow Stanley tape measures extend rigidly. Blue, articulated Werner ladders fan out near the top. Horizontal yellow levels measure the orientation of different planes. Orange A-clamps hold plastic sword ferns and flowers in place. Blue plastic drinking cups and empty water bottles rim the tiers of the intricate structure.

"An Equal and Opposite Reaction" could be a complicated chandelier: the gooseneck desk lamps hanging in the sculpture do shed light. But this is not your typical performance-hall light fixture. As is characteristic of her work, Sze has built a carefully organized system that illuminates questions about life and art.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, her "Things Fall Apart" explodes over several levels of its site and also defines the building's atrium. It evokes Charles Ray's "Unpainted Sculpture" of a wrecked car in its use of cut-up red SUV parts. "An Equal and Opposite Reaction" doesn't have that car-crash edginess, but it does create uneasiness. Do the construction tools - measuring tapes, clamps, levels - limit or shape? Do the up-side-down water bottles suggest hospital IVs and a system on life support or - as the opera singers propose - are they a tribute to them who are never without one? Denser at the bottom, the piece becomes more transparent and open at the top. There's a sense of the unbearable lightness of being about this structure.

The Seattle Opera Scene Shop built the installation. Bob Schaub, the Opera's technical production director, is a tall man who emanates the quiet confidence that comes from bringing off a career's worth of complicated projects. To him, Sze's work calls up a complex system: DNA, biology or geology.

As Sze communicated her vision and the shop began to execute her design, they developed a deep level of trust. After an initial meeting, much of the work was advanced by e-mailing digital photos back and forth - Have we got it? Is it working? For the scene shop, the work of understanding the piece and of translating the artist's intention for the welders, laser cutters and other fabricators was a new experience in the visual arts.

Schaub recalls with a smile the permit process for the finished work: getting seismic permits for a piece that's designed to look as if it's not attached to anything wasn't easy. Picking up the mass-produced items to arrange throughout the installation at Home Depot was. The building process may have been unusual for them, but the result satisfied all around. So much so that Sze wants the Seattle Opera Scene Shop to build all her large works.

Sarah Sze, 36 years old and a MacArthur Fellow, was born in Boston and lives in New York. Her father was an architect, and her B.A. from Yale (1991) is in painting and architecture. She has an M.F.A. (1997) from the School of Visual Arts, New York. When she first visited McCaw Hall, Sze was shown a site for her work closer to the lobby's glass wall - the thinking being that it would be clearly visible from the street and near Kreielsheimer Promenade, where New York artist Leni Schwen-dinger's light compositions project over the plaza through sheer metal scrims.

Sze's suggestion: move the site in line with the grand staircase where it would better harmonize with the building's architecture. Bingo. Another demonstration of how her work brings new meaning to "site-specific." "An Equal and Opposite Reaction" moves with the music of the lobby's curves, and its gridlike artistry complements the geometry of the lobby windows, the met-al support columns and the mesh scrims outside.

One goal the renovation of the old Opera House achieves is to bring all the audience closer to the stage. By placing her work in the middle of three tiers of balcony, Sze accomplishes a similar goal: from each tier, the viewer can get close to a dif-ferent angle of the art. According to Kelly Tweeddale, Seattle Opera administrative director, this is part of Sze's gift to subscribers. Even people who come regularly to McCaw Hall will continue to be surprised by the work as they experience it from another level.

Lisa Currin, Seattle Art Museum's departing contemporary art curator, loves the unexpected quality of Sze's work, calling it "Wagner meets Home Depot." Currin served on the review panel that selected the work for the city and says they felt it important to choose an artist not already represented in Seattle and one with an international reputation. She calls the selection of a young artist to reinterpret the visitor's experience of a performance hall for artforms with the long histo-ries of opera and ballet "a strong civic statement."

"An Equal and Opposite Reaction" turns up the wattage on the city's public art collection. Like a soaring note, a whirling pirouette or a haunting aria, Sze's installation has the power to move.

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