He detonates an explosive inside a cube made of ballistics plastic. This is what’s left behind.
It reminds me of the weird relationship between actual violence and depicted violence.
Like, we see more images of human-against-human violence–in video games, movies, TV, etc.–than anyone ever in the history of this species. (Already today, I’ve seen depictions of several hundred violent human deaths, because I watched a movie called The Expendables.)
But actual violence is increasingly abstract and distant from even those who perpetrate it: Most war-related deaths these days involve explosives, often detonated by people far away from the detonations themselves. Abstraction has kind of become the only way we can really think about this kind of violence, because we experience it abstractly unless and until the bombs land on us.
Also, I just think these sculptures are very beautiful*, and I like that they were created partly by chance and partly by careful design.
All in all, this is the best use of ballistics plastic I’ve seen since Mythbusters.
*Edit: I don’t mean “just” in the sense that the beauty of these sculptures is incidental. That the beauty results from (and relies upon) violence is of course central to the whole enterprise.
For this assignment I wanted to make a sculpture that embodies(pun intended) the feeling of embarrassment: Like my gut is curling up in knots. Similar bodily feelings also happens when I’m excited or worried, but that is where the materials come in to play to distinguish between them. Embarrassment is the loud and obnoxious one.
So I dug into my sock-drawer to dig up a collection of old socks and tights. Besides from being the perfect material to make a giant knot of, they also represent some embarrassing moments - as you can see, I used to have a fondness for loud colours,patterns and stripes.
And thus this represents one of the worst feelings: when you find something super cool in private, but once you express it in public, you realise how horribly uncool it is. It is especially bad with outfits that you have to wear an entire day, and feel awful about. I’ve done this so many times, and looking back upon just what outfits I have worn out of the house, I shudder. And this sculpture is a horrible reminder, so it is going right back into the depths of the sock-drawer.
This week’s assignment comes to you from Chicago based artist Geof Oppenheimer. Geof’s work reflects personal experience and the social and political atmosphere they were created in, and he wants you to make an object that does the same. Here are your instructions:
1. Create something that makes you feel uncomfortable, out of a material or group of materials 2. Document it and upload using #theartassignment 3. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)
The title of Geof Oppenheimer’s solo exhibition at Ratio 3 creates an expectation of the artist’s engagement with self-conflicting, hidden compulsions. In fact, the show’s prints, sculptures, and video address the confluence of political verbiage, violence, and the hollowness of nationalism with varying degrees of success. The three groups of works support one another by providing context; the prints and sculptures in the main room, for example, gain much when viewed with the video’s soundtrack playing in the background. But when each group of works is viewed individually, it sometimes falls short of Oppenheimer’s stated intention to interrogate “the ways in which political and social structures are encoded in images and objects.”1
On the walls of the main space are the five black-and-white pigment prints of Social Failure and Black Signs (2010). In each photo, a smooth, graceful hand holds up a black card with white text. The phrases on the cards are forceful but opaque. “TOLERATED, AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” reads one card, while another asserts, “EVERYTHING, BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH.” These phrases are quotes from interviews with various political figures from Castro to Reagan discussing their ideological failures. The form of the black card, its position aloft, and the text’s implied meanings all work together to position the prints as documentations of protest. Yet the force of demonstration is contradicted by the gentle, elegant grip on the cleanly printed card. Whatever raw energy the words conjure for the redress of grievances is dampened by the poise and domestication of the materials and composition.
In the center of the floor are Modern Ensembles (2010–11), three colorful sculptures made of gunpowder, blackpowder, and smoke dyes detonated inside transparent ballistic plexiglass boxes. Each flawlessly constructed cube is fairly large—around twenty inches in every dimension—and mounted on a footed aluminum base set atop a white pedestal. When Oppenheimer and a former Disney pyrotechnician ignited the volatile chemicals enclosed in the boxes, residue from the discharged powders coated the inside of the plexiglass with soft pink, orange, blue, mauve, and brown splatters. The hues of the exploded materials blend into one another to make lightly marbled patterns across the interior surface of the box, punctuated by small bursts of
Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house, 2011; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.
Anthems, 2011; high-definition video; TRT:4:40. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.
sharper colors such as yellow and black. The work avoids many common clichés of art that explores conflict (particularly the tendency toward maudlin gestures), but the sweetly attractive colors and immaculate construction contradict the forcefulness of true violence, which often has ugly, ill-defined parameters. The scale and tidiness ofModern Ensembles mimic vitrines—devices for civilized viewing. That reference turns their interior chaos into a spectator’s version of violence, a signifier both produced and witnessed from a privileged, and even academic, remove.
The video in the back room isn’t marred by such reserved mannerliness. Anthems (2011) is a four-minute HD video of actors portraying a military marching band, interspersed with shots of a stark, minimal stage, and a soundtrack of four different national anthems. Most of the footage is of young men in khaki uniforms, marching in small formations across frames that are edited in transparent layers. They come and go across the screen, simultaneously walking toward and away from viewers. The shots are filmed from different angles, which results in a mildly dizzying effect when coupled with the multiplicity of actors in the overlaid frames. The musicians are only miming their roles, however: as they raise trumpets and horns to their faces, the mouthpieces barely touch their lips and their cheeks fail to inflate with air. Viewers can hear crashing cymbals, but never see them onscreen. There is a gap between what the music proposes and what the visuals portray, and it is precisely this space thatAnthems invites viewers to contemplate. Dark shots of a minimal stage set that is composed of a propped door and a pair of three-step plywood staircases heighten the slippage. Sometimes the stairs are stacked, with interlocking treads and risers that create a precarious whole leading neither up nor down. The shots of the stage set work well with the exaggerated portrayal of lockstep nationalism, amplifying the video’s focus on theatricality and spectatorship. Eventually the music builds to a crashing, blaring crescendo that breaks into silence, while the video whites out into blankness before the credits roll.
In each of the three parts of the exhibition, Oppenheimer brings an idea into conjunction with its opposite: strong political statements by men softened by clean, feminine articulation; the violence of explosions counteracted by pleasurable swirls of color encased in immaculate chambers; the chest-thumping pride of a national anthem mocked with a theater set and blurred into incoherence. But it is only in the last that the drama of the presentation fully meets the weighty concept behind it. Though Oppenheimer is able to provoke the viewer with the title of the show, it’s clear that the part of us that would like to burn down our own house is a more anarchic creature than the one proposed here.
INSIDE US ALL THERE IS A PART THAT WOULD LIKE TO BURN DOWN OUR OWN HOUSE IS ON VIEW AT RATIO 3, IN SAN FRANCISCO, THROUGH DECEMBER 10, 2011.
BUDDING ARSONISTS ASIDE, MANY OF US CAN STILL RELATE TO the cathartic emotion contained in the title “Inside us all there is a part that would like to burn down our own house"—an urge to wipe the slate clean, to destroy the imperfection of one’s reality and begin anew. In a diverse exhibit which includes conceptual sculptures, digital prints and a brief but impressive video, Geof Oppenheimer approaches the violence implicit in society, and how social systems and political dogma intersect with the terrain of art and culture.
Collaborating with an unnamed pyrotechnic expert who once worked for Disney, Oppenheimer created explosions within ballistic-grade Plexiglas cubes, their residue coating the interior surfaces with bright splashes of pigment. Visually stunning, each of the three cubes, collectively titledModern Ensembles (2010-2011), has a unique palette, one coated in warm, earthy tones of ocher and orange, another raspberry-alizarin with faint touches of yellow-beige and sky blue and the last army gray-green, shot through with electric yellow and darker tones of brown. While the sculptures attest to dramatic events involving gunpowder and pigment, they convey more an aura of science lab than battlefield, undermining somewhat their intended function as signifiers for the violence undergirding our culture.
Oppenheimer’s video Anthems (2011) evoked a generalized sense of dismay and unease with the social constructs that a military marching band might suggest. The four unspecified national anthems, simultaneously played by groups of the drum and marching corps of Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago, were blended and overlaid, essentially mangled beyond any recognition. Reflections and combinations of sound and image created an unsettling effect, while the military precision—the neatly pressed uniforms and shining horns—suggested the regimentation of life in the service of one’s country, and a kind of surrender of self to the greater whole, of following orders. As these lines of marching bands paraded in absurd, tight circles, periodically the cacophony of sound faded to silence, and the images of the marchers shifted to a vacant space bearing rough plywood constructions: a pair of steps. Eventually, the two risers fit together like a puzzle, one inverted resting atop the other—perhaps a metaphor for the enforced unity of political camaraderie.
The final component, Social Failure and Black Signs (2010), was comprised of acerbic wall-hung, text-based pieces. Against a light gray background a slender arm enters bearing a message lettered in plain white text on a black card—"TOLERATED AS UNFORTUNATE EXCESSES,” “AND DESPAIR, DECADENCE, AND MORALS” among them. These terse, dogmatic excerpts have been taken from interviews with notable politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro. A statement about the ultimate futility of political ideology, these images offer us a brittle aesthetic experience, and present a kind of intellectual conundrum as well: strings of words decontextualized to convey no coherent meaning, rather an ambiguous —yet autocratic—sound bite.
Oppenheimer’s work is engaging enough to draw and keep our interest, yet simultaneously hermetic and dispassionate enough to put us on edge.
Occupational hazards Geof Oppenheimer's politically charged new show at Ratio 3 juxtaposes polyphony with cacophany
Review by Matt Sussman
HAIRY EYEBALLWeds/2 marks the first citywide general strike in our country since 1946. Spearheaded by Occupy Oakland in the wake of the Oakland Police’s grossly excessive use of force against protestors last week, the strike is further proof that the only definitive thing one can say about the Occupy movement is that it is growing at a remarkable pace.
Whether this growth will result in greater political traction, rather than merely prompt further sympathy or ridicule from politicians and the media alike, remains to be seen. Then again, one metric of political traction for the Occupy movement is simply endurance, measured by present bodies. As Lili Loofbourow recently wrote in an on-the-ground report on Occupy Oakland for website The Awl, “technology tilts the political machine so that only that which is public matters.” And despite the Occupy movement’s necessary imperfections, there is no more direct and immediate way of being public than showing up and speaking out.
What gets broadcast and what gets heard beyond the encampments is another matter. Even with the tools of social media at the Occupiers’ disposal, can the movement’s horizontal, leaderless structure effectively amplifying the voices of “the 99%” without resulting in an echo chamber? And if that is what’s being perceived, both on the ground and in the national conversation, is that necessarily a sign of the movement’s failure or merely a testament to its vibrancy?
A variation on these questions of mediums and messages is at the heart of Geof Oppenheimer’s intellectually bracing and formally daring show at Ratio 3, Inside Us All There Is A Part That Would Like to Burn Down Our Own House, which although not explicitly about current events, uncannily resonates with them. The work inInside Us formally traces the fluctuating state of the body politic by zeroing in on moments of stress in which civic faith breaks down or flares up, whether due to admissions of failure on the part if its appointed leaders or from internal combustion.
The latter isn’t just a figure of speech. The ballistic-grade Plexiglass cubes on plinths that snake down the center of Ratio 3’s main room, collectively titled Modern Ensembles, each contain the multicolored residue of an explosion set off within. Oppenheimer worked with a pyro-technician (a former employee of the Disney Corporation, no less) to create custom-made charges of various explosive chemicals that were then detonated inside the cubes, resulting in gorgeous, nebula-like washes of color that completely cover each cube’s interior face.
That the beauty of the Modern Ensembles comes from such violent origins is less interesting to me (that’s an old story in Art History, particularly in regards to action painting, a tradition which these sculptures extend as much as they do classic Minimalism’ proverbial cube), than how they embody a tension between explosive force and containment. The Oakland occupiers also hit a wall — a phalanx of police armed with riot gear and tear gas. It’s hard not to think of that moment, that so many experienced remotely via Facebook posts and Flickr feeds, when viewing these chemically colored cubes that, although transparent, you can’t actually see through.
Communication breakdown is also taken up in Social Failure and Black Signs, a suite of five pigment prints that surround the enigmatic vitrines like a gaggle of lost protestors. Each black and white image consists of a similarly-positioned arm holding aloft a sign printed with phrases concerning governance or economics but clearly removed, media res, from their original context. “Tolerated, as unfortunate excess,” reads one. Another states, “everything, but it is not enough.”
These stranded phrases are, in fact, excerpts from interviews with political figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro and Robert McNamara, in which they discuss moments when their ideologies resulted in policy failure, something which Oppenheimer’s photographs formally restage by transforming these confessional moments into incomplete sound bytes.
The opposite tack is used to achieve similarly disorienting results in Anthems, a four minute high definition video, which superimposes footage of a military marching band playing four different national anthems while in formation. The resulting wall of sound renders the pieces indistinguishable from each other, while, visually, the rapidly overlaid footage scrambles the patterned order of military spectacle.
Politically, a lot can happen when polyphony gives way to cacophony (or in the case of Social Failure and Black Signs when signal becomes noise). But the result can also just be chaos. As an ongoing experiment in the messy business of building a participatory democracy with its share of successful and failed words and deeds, the Occupy movement is a living, ever-expanding testament to this. And despite being presented under a title full of Freudian dramatics, so are the pieces in Inside Us.