New York — SOMETHING'S happening at Central Park's Doris C. Freedman Plaza, just off Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. Passersby approach, slow down, often double back for another look. Plunked down in their path is a triangular hunk of brick and metal sprawling about 12 feet on each side and rising a few feet like a low-level pyramid.
Did a building fragment fall onto the ground? Or was it just unearthed from below? And what is all that stuff crammed inside?
The structure and its innards are in fact "Corner Plot," a public artwork that will be on display in the plaza through late October. And according to sculptor Sarah Sze, who conceived it, this "Plot" had a specific inspiration.
"How do you get people to look twice in Manhattan?" she asks. "You're dealing with an environment where the spectacle is so high, and your senses are so stimulated, that in some ways you actually turn off. You have to figure out how to get people's attention."
So Sze, 37, did what she always does, plopping familiar items in unfamiliar places. First she created a building fragment similar to a brick postwar building just across Fifth Avenue. Then she turned it sort of on its side, added little windows, then nestled it below the ground and filled the submerged part with toothpicks, towels, plants and hundreds of other familiar, often fragile items native to places such as Target, Walgreens and Home Depot.
"Sarah was very conscious of the fact that you can't compete with the architecture of New York, but you can take it on as a topic or theme," says Rochelle Steiner, director of New York's Public Art Fund, which commissioned "Corner Plot." "She was able to make something with aboveground presence and underground wonder. It's amazing to see people engage with this piece, and I think it's the unexpected quality about it that draws people in."
That air of mystery was also key for the Boston-born Sze. "You see it from far away and you can't really figure out what it is," she says, regarding her work from across Fifth Avenue. "I wanted it to be a piece you discovered. I wanted it to feel like you couldn't tell if it was emerging out of the ground or sinking. The directions aren't clear."
Don't expect guidance on the interior either. Sze -- who once described her process as "mess, mess, mess, mess, art" -- says, "I choose objects that are easily accessible and totally replaceable. They're not trash, so they don't even have the romanticism of being used."
Just what's inside? There's a row of plump white bath towels held in place by blue tape, an ice pack, pencils, thumbtacks, cotton balls, lamps and toilet paper. An iPod, a cellphone and a wallet -- all made of white cardboard. Socks. A tiny spiral staircase. A smoke detector and a fire extinguisher. Fake plants with fake water on them.
This sort of free-form, site-specific art has made Sze's name (pronounced, incidentally, "Zee"). The artist, who did her undergraduate work at Yale and graduate work at New York's School of Visual Arts, says that in college she wavered between painting and architecture -- the profession of her father, Boston-based Chia-Ming Sze -- before eventually settling on sculpture.
"I liked the spontaneity of painting and wanted to preserve the idea of spontaneity in three-dimensional form," she says. "I was never trained in sculpture, so it was more fertile ground."
Off to a running start
BARELY out of graduate school, Sze was already being tapped for major exhibitions and international biennales, sending her work off to such places as Venice and Berlin. Winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 2003, she's also had solo shows at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as well as in Paris, London and Milan. Reviewers have called her "a modern master of bric-a-brac," writing of "works that celebrate the lyrical potential in clutter" and of "tinkering made sublime."
Her first outdoor sculpture came in 2001 at Bard College, where she made a three-part work that one writer described as a "multi-site sci-fi city." At the Whitney in 2003, she turned the museum's lower-level courtyard into a strange land populated with aquariums, plants and what she calls "elaborate Styrofoam plates carved up to look like skeletal structures."
This time around, says Sze, she was also trying to find something distinctive for a site well known to art connoisseurs. While the Public Art Fund has also commissioned art for Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, Brooklyn, SoHo rooftops, manhole covers and elsewhere since its 1977 start, such high-profile artists as Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore and George Segal have all had their turns at the plaza, a well-traveled chunk of Manhattan named for the fund's founder, Doris C. Freedman.