Sarah Sze: The Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station review: spectacular, beautiful and utterly compelling

Sarah Sze, Metronome, 2023 (Thierry Bal)
Sarah Sze, Metronome, 2023 (Thierry Bal)

An unassuming door leading off the courtyard in front of Peckham Rye station is a portal to a transcendent experience. Some Londoners might have had brief glimpses of the grand vaulted space you find up a flight of stars beyond the door. But most of us have been completely unaware of this former first class waiting room. It fell out of use after its Victorian heyday and has been empty — and at one stage, near derelict — since its last use as a billiard hall in the 1960s.

The room bears its scars but retains a magnificence. And few artists are better placed to exploit that than Sarah Sze. The US artist creates extraordinary, intricate sculptural environments, like vast 3D collages, that encompass the entirety of the spaces they occupy, overwhelming us in the process.

Sze’s piece, called Metronome, builds on an ongoing series. Of course, a station environment and waiting rooms are bound up with a temporal theme, and Sze embraces the actual sound of trains rattling past and pulling up at the platforms immediately beyond the room, as well as recordings of them, in her installation. A ticking clock and a heartbeat accompany them.

The work is assembled in two sections: an armature of steel bars in which sits a concave circle of pieces of torn white paper, onto which are projected film sequences, some shot with Sze’s iPhone, others found online. Behind that is what looks like a working desk, with coffee cups, chewing gum and water, and a stack of revolving projectors which flash the same images onto the walls. All around the desk are white floral sculptures, like weeds threatening to overwhelm the technology.

The footage clearly evokes the elasticity of time and its measurement, from the everyday to the geological and astronomical: a hand draws a line, someone rhythmically chops gnocchi, a sun sets, a volcano erupts, a glacier melts, constellations of stars flash from light years away.

Everything’s in flux. The images settle on screens and walls and disappear almost as quickly. Sometimes a sequence – most spectacularly, a bird murmuration – flashes across the whole room. The projectors prompt wondrous shadows, of the sculpted plants, the steel bars, and us, as we walk around the space.

Each part of the installation is porous, bleeding into its neighbouring elements; a composition endlessly being remade. Sze makes materials appear fluid, so film and sculpture seem to morph into painting, stained glass and animation.

The Waiting Room fundamentally explores how the images that saturate our world relate to us, our bodies and our physical environment. Marvellously, it often seems like the art, and Sze’s thinking, is being made in real time. She’s created a scenario in which we glimpse memory – that in our minds and the machines we carry – being exploded. It’s disorientating, often beautiful, and utterly compelling.

The Old Waiting Room, Peckham Rye Station, to September 16;