'A silence like you’ve never heard before': Sarah Sze on Zen temples in Kyoto, Zadie Smith and Chopin's Nocturnes

The American sculptor and installation artist on Velázquez, Emily Dickinson and what she learnt from living in Japan for a year

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Sarah Sze © Deborah Feingold Photography

Sarah Sze © Deborah Feingold Photography

A brush with...

In this podcast, based on The Art Newspaper's regular interview series, our host Ben Luke talks to artists in-depth. He asks the questions you've always wanted to: who are the artists, historical and contemporary, they most admire? Which are the museums they return to? What are the books, music and other media that most inspire them? And what is art for, anyway?

If you could live with one work of art, what would it be?

Las Meninas by Velázquez. I almost feel like I don’t even need to explain why. It’s one of the most masterful paintings ever made and still is to this day. I feel like it folds out like an origami in terms of its composition: to start at the left with the back of a painting; the ping-ponging of the eyes to you, to the back of the room; that lyricism of the people through it; the precision but also the complete mess of the composition; the completely disarming lighting. I’m not sure there’s been a more important painting made since.

Which cultural experience changed the way you see the world?

They’re really experiences of travel for me. And they happened at different stages in my life. In 1986, I went to Xi’an and saw the Terracotta Warriors, and that was only about 10 years after they were discovered by a farmer. And it’s mind-boggling, as you can imagine. That was very transformative for me. I lived in Japan for a year and I would say Ryōan-ji [the Zen temple in Kyoto] is something that everyone should see. I learned so much about negative space, about the idiosyncratic nature of landscape: how do you create a space? How do you create ritual? How do you frame a landscape? It’s a dark space, and the landscape is light, so it’s almost like a screen, it’s almost like watching a movie. And it has a silence like you’ve never heard before.

Which writers or poets do you return to the most?

Emily Dickinson is always my go-to. I could pick that up and read it any day. I have memorised so much of it that I can also just come up with it if I need it, so that’s been a real gift. There are others: Elizabeth Bishop, Yeats, Blake, Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, the Persian poet Hafez, the Irish poet Nick Laird. But Emily, I’ve stolen many, many of her words to use as titles. For books, there are some contemporaries that I am lucky to both speak to and read their work. Zadie Smith is one of the greatest writers of our generation. I love her essays, I love her books. I’ve been lucky to have her write about my own work. Jennifer Egan is also a friend and has come to my studio many times. She is unbelievable in that she can actually change up her style for every single book she writes.

What music or other audio do you listen to while you work?

When I really need an open, calm space, I listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes. My grandmother was a pianist, and that was her favourite. She used to play it every night to my mother. But I never met her; she passed away before I was born. So that has meaning for me. But I love to dance. So if I’m in the mood for dancing then I’ll put on Prince or early hip hop, like Queen Latifah, or even something more contemporary, like Outkast. The thing that stays with me the most is jazz; I can listen to jazz forever. So if it was a Desert Island Discs question, it would have to be Billie Holiday.

Sarah Sze, Victoria Miro, London, until 6 November; New Works, Gagosian Basel, until 13 November; Fallen Sky, a new permanent, site-specific sculpture, and Fifth Season, an exhibition, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York, until 8 November. This is an excerpt from the podcast A brush with… Sarah Sze. You can hear the full conversation on the usual podcast platforms