Dennis Oppenheim

Performance art has always played a major role in Dennis Oppenheim's career. In Oppenheim ’s view, body art and, more iconoclastically, sculpture are both permutations of performance art. He practiced body and performance art from 1968 to 1974, capturing public and private rituals through film and photograpy. In 1974, he substituted himself as a performer with surrogate marionettes in the works Attempt to Raise Hell and Theme for a Major Hit. With the Performance Structures (1978–1979), and up to and including his recent public sculpture, the artist began to expand and transform the concept of performance art by incorporating other media. Whether his method is the marching of a lone bugle player (Ground Mutations) or an interactive sculpture (Functioning Faces), the intended end product is the inducement of a psychological state that produces a transformation of the viewer’s mind and spirit.

In body art, Oppenheim specifically explored notions of risk and endurance, subverting the modernist myth of the struggling artist in Parallel Stress and Rocked Circle — Fear. The work consisted of the artist subjecting himself to physical stress and potential harm. Energy Displacement Approaching Theatricality (1970) tested the bodies of the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin. The winners of a swim meet received theater tickets, and seating arrangements were determined by a student’s placement in the race. That which is provoked by action, thought, and emotion is the subject matter of these performances.

Oppenheim has also incorporated his family in his art, filming his children’s gestures and finding meaning in potato sack races and making faces. The interest in this work was issues of genetics and heredity, embodying the Oedipal relation between an artist’s progenitors and himself through the interaction between Oppenheim and his young collaborators.

Oppenheim had come to body and performance art from the notion of sculpture, not theater. The Performance Structures, plans and models for sculptures, truly incorporate the concepts inherent to both performance art and sculpture. Each of the monolithic, architectonic forms of the Performance Structures cites minimalist sculpture. At the same time, these sculptures function as a witty response to Michael Fried’s criticism of minimalist art as “theatrical.”

The Performance Structures presage Oppenheim’s later public work (Stage Set for a Film in Valladolid, Spain, 1998–1999) in which sculpture can be conceived as if it were a stage set or a movie set for future actions and interactions, potentially a platform for several performers.

Despite their seemingly lethal content and murderous intent, the Performance Structures (1978–1979) embody the notion of faith and the power of the mind and spirit to transcend and transform pain and death. This is the faith that allows one not to sink in quicksand, to believe that the spirit will sustain one through a fire walk or a treacherous passage over a rope bridge, but most of all the faith that the experience of art will be transformative .

Structure for Quicksand Bin is a 16-foot-high metal construction consisting of a trough for quicksand surrounded by a catwalk. Oppenheim has brought nature in its fearsome, if clichéd presence, into the realm of culture, the gallery and museum world . Structure for Quicksand Bin provides a maliciously hilarious metaphor for being truly immersed in a work of art. Despite myth and legend, quicksand, which is simply sand highly saturated with water, does not actively draw people and animals down to an unimaginable death. It is struggling that results in the loss of balance and drowning . Thus, Structure for Quicksand Bin demands a suspension of disbelief, both literally and metaphorically.

Confronted with Performance Structure for Inclined Hot Coal Walk, another metal sculpture, the role of the spectator is not that of the passive absorber and viewer, but that of a potential performer who will be transformed in mind and body by the experience. Walking through hot coals is a spiritual practice. This test of mind, body, and spirit is usually performed on a bed of hot coals raked across the ground. Oppenheim has envisioned a raised platform with flights of steps at either end and gasoline burners to keep the coals hot. In an ironic way, this sculpture subverts the insipid prescription that art should make you “feel” something. The successful performer and coal walker would not “feel” anything, but walk across the fiery hot coals unscathed.

In speaking of an ensuing work, the artist said that it “satisfies my needs for a sculpture to be a more active entity, not just a visual enterprise.” Conceived shortly after the Performance Structures, “ Shape Transmission Chamber for the Ultimate Smoke Signal” (1979) gives shape to an even darker conceit, although the work looks to the horrors of the Holocaust in an attempt to find redemption. The sculpture performs its goal by subverting traditional artistic process — suggesting the conversion of material into concept rather than concept into matter.

A caption on the drawing for “Shape Transmission Chamber for the Ultimate Smoke Signal” labels it a “system for converting solids into atmospheric communication”; the idea is that some substance would burn inside the concrete furnace, and bellows could regulate the resulting smoke into signals. The sublimation of wood (it’s horrible to think of the matter as flesh) through fire into smoke signals produces meaning, whereas the various materials burned would represent modification of that meaning.

The obdurate, block-like form of the chamber and the metal archway leading to the black portal have a far more lethal resonance. Certainly the word “Ultimate” in the title evokes the idea of ultimacy present in Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the Holocaust. Indeed, this performance piece was proposed for the Israel Museum. Oppenheim planned for viewers to actually enter the quasi-architectural structure, forcing an empathy with the unwitting victims of the Holocaust. Played out to its logical conclusion, performed in the mind, the sculpture proposes that meaning must be read into death, and the spirit, symbolized by smoke, survives to give meaning.

In later works, Oppenheim would continue this interest in making structures to produce meaning almost alchemically, through actual fire. Combined Expressions is a sculpture joining four galvanized steel furnaces. The form of the furnaces and metal chimneys is akin to industrial furnaces, only with diagrammatic cut-out faces, their features looking to be fed with fuel. Although some of Oppenheim’s other sculptures and installations, including Sleeping Dogs and Back to Back (Belly to Belly) (1997) incorporate electric fireplaces, conceptually roasting and toasting, these are functioning furnaces . Combined Expressions would be used to burn wood, the smoke discharged given meaning by the combined expressions of all four furnace faces.

Incongruously knotted, the brick smokestack of Performance Piece ties together, combines, consumes, and transforms various elements, the bricks of meaning building the notion of performance in Oppenheim’s oeuvre. Sculptures that perform themselves, the combination of whimsy and mortality, the possibility for human interaction, and musical instruments are all elements of Oppenheim’s performances, bodily and sculptural.

Performance Piece is a chimney that is both a musical instrument and a work to be played and performed in a participatory manner. Partially constructed of firebrick, this giant fireplace bristling with bugles could be used to hold an actual fire. Whether or not viewers would like to approach this infernal hearth and blow into the bugles, the potential for such interaction remains. Air passing through the brass instruments would make them function as bellows, inducing heat. The traditional brick smokestack is tied into a knot, functioning as a stop on a bugle, changing the noise made by the fire and air.

In Oppenheim’s oeuvre, fire has often stood for such a metamorphosis of matter into meaning. Closeness to danger and death are the means to a transformation of the mind and spirit. Performance Piece, ostensibly a solid, almost homey hearth, is an instrument enriching the meaning of performance. It is symbolic of the structure of Oppenheim’s work, built up, brick by brick, concept by concept, over the years.

Mary Beth Karoll
July 2000
New York, NY

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