Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
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Dennis Oppenheim (1938-2011) initiated sculptural events in a quest to make ideas material. He was a pioneer of new thinking in sculpture and over five decades produced sculptures that took the form of actions, performances, installations, film and architecture.
Spanning 1972 to 1986, Thought Collision Factories investigates Oppenheim’s use of fireworks, flares and machines as sculptural materials.
For Oppenheim, sound was a central sculptural condition. In this exhibition a sound-sculpture, Ratta-callity 1974, uses the artist’s voice to propose radicality as an attitude, while the soundtrack of two films reverberate through the galleries. Machine-Gun Fire 1974 emits a continuous discharge of explosions, while in Echo 1973 Oppenheim’s hand slaps and vibrates a wall in a relentless impact of sensible body on senseless surface.
In the early 1970s Oppenheim used both the scale of his own body and the landscape to expand the definition of sculpture, with these sculpture-events carefully documented using maps and photographs. Polarities 1972, for example, plotted out graphic gestures by Oppenheim’s father and daughter using red magnesium flares, stretching over 150 metres long, in Bridgehampton, New York, while Whirlpool – Eye of the Storm 1973 used an aeroplane discharging white smoke to create a three-quarter mile diameter vortex in the sky.
Four examples of these photo-documentations are on display in Thought Collision Factories, as well as a selection of photographs from Mind twist, a portfolio of burned out thoughts 1977 documenting ignition of flare sculptures.
From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s Oppenheim turned to surrogates and machines to visualise the production of ideas. In the Institute’s galleries two machines whirr and vibrate, factories producing processes rather than products. One is loaded with rockets and a candyfloss machine, while the other is a model for an outdoor sculpture consisting of spinning motors and packed with fireworks. Oppenheim described the machine as ‘a rather perfect device to use as a metaphor for thinking’. Like ideas, machines are never flawless and, like thoughts, will always break down.
During the exhibition three flare-sculptures from 1975 were ignited in front of the Institute’s building, each one spelling out the titles ‘Narrow Mind’, ‘Mindless Less Mind’ and ‘Mind Twist’. Fireworks and flares are at their most material when they dematerialise, a process that involves sight, sound and smell.