Oppenheim: A Mysterious Point of Entry
Magazine, December 1997
Carolee Thea interviews Dennis Oppenheim in Venice
Dennis Oppenheim has been a pioneering artist in conceptualism, land art, body
art, video, and sculpture since the late 1960s. He is most interested in imperfect
and chaotic manifestations of dialogue and tension, danger and discomfort. His
work references the mind, the body, and the sensory shell as avenues of description
as well as states of being. Possessing a demonic irony, his work rests uncomfortably
between humor and terror, a middle ground inhabited by Oppenheim as an arena
for continuous self-transformation, a process that causes his work to resist
labels like neo-Dada or Pop. His new work addresses public space through his
manipulation of familiar architectural icons. As usual, Oppenheim, shaman, reformer,
showman, and trickster, wordlessly initiates a philosophical discourse with his
The recent Oppenheim exhibition sponsored by the Venice Biennale was shown
Marghera, the port city of the island of Mestre, about 10 minutes from Venice
via vaporetto. As visitors approach Marghera, an apparition like a part of New
Jersey arises, crowded with processing bins and other modernist implements of
a polluting industrial economy. Within this bleak landscape rises the temporary
Teatro Fenice, a large tent-like structure replacing the burned-out opera house
of Venice. The island's factories are virtually abandoned except for recycled
spaces, including the Pilkington glass factory, which was filled with Oppenheim's
works of the last 10 years, 40 of them. Alone in the rear courtyard was "Device
to Root out Evil" (1997), a 25-foot, tilted, upside-down, New England-style
Carolee Thea: How has this context of Marghera, Venice, or the factory building,
informed your work?
Dennis Oppenheim: For the past 30 years there have been occasions where the context
has informed my work, if not literally created the foundation for it. A couple
of years ago, I showed work in a World War II bunker in Munich, and the architectural
setting almost demanded certain works and not others. In this case, I was asked
to be a guinea pig, in an experimental gesture made between Germano Celant, the
curator of the Biennale, and the present mayor of the city. Their objective was
to bring art to the people living outside of Venice, in the community of Marghera.
This culturally starved area would then compete with the overly culturally rich
Venice. Not being Italian, I could not appreciate this gesture perhaps as much
as the local inhabitants. But the general blueprint of turning abandoned industrial
spaces into permanent exhibition facilities has a considerable historical precedent.
You can imagine how difficult it is, however, to compete with Venice proper,
a center of tremendous cultural life, compared to Marghera, an industrial wasteland.
Thea: "Device to Root out Evil", the church sculpture with its steeple
thrust into the ground, is the only outdoor work. It is an interesting ploy to
turn a familiar object upside-down, stimulating a viewer to reexamine preconceived
notions of its nature and meaning. It conjures up associations of religious turmoil:
16th-century Italy, the Holocaust, war in the former Yugoslavia, or Christian
fundamentalism in America. Have personal religious conceptions inspired the work?
Oppenheim: That piece, initially called Church, was proposed to the Public Art
Fund in the city of New York to be built last year on Church Street, where I
live. The director thought it was too controversial, and felt it would stimulate
a lot of negative reaction from the Church and the religious population. I then
changed the title to "Device to Root out Evil", to sidestep unwanted
focus on ambient content. It's a very simple gesture that's made here, simply
turning something upside-down. One is always looking for a basic gesture in sculpture,
economy of gesture: it is the simplest, most direct means to a work. Turning
something upside-down elicits a reversal of content and pointing a steeple into
the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven.
Thea: Are you saying that your work evolves only from basic gestures? What about
contemporary theory, or the artist's psychology, or materials, or cultural motifs
as sources? What is the ultimate binding agent in this diverse assembly of works?
Oppenheim: The binding agent is the continued intoxication I receive by using
art to target itself, to interrogate itself. I know this art for art's sake position
can be elitist, but I am simply talking about what, out of the multitude of positions
an artist can take, is the most challenging. On the journey of directing art
towards itself, one can always find adjacent content to pull in, so as you're
deconstructing you're also constructing something, hopefully with a less naive
foundation. The superficial layering of form/content, without a rich and inspired
internal drive, will always have disappointing results. It is uncomfortable to
pressure oneself to dig towards each work, to try and penetrate something. It
gives you a headache. And there is no guarantee you will build inspiration along
the way. But resting on your laurels and simply reiterating what you already
know is a waste of your life, even if you invented it in the first place. Art
should be what we don't know.
Thea: The systems of conceptualism which began in the late '60s, and in which
you were an important player, are significant in understanding the diversity
of your work and further colors its history.
Oppenheim: The doors opened by early conceptual art led to a rich field of uses;
however, often artists were captured and corralled into small places within this
field. I've always wanted to operate within the entire arena. Signature style
has been suspicious to me; it reads as a limitation.
Thea: Many of the works here in Marghera were previously exhibited at the Joseph
Helman Gallery in New York, where "Sleeping Dogs" (1997) and "Back
to Back (Belly to Belly)" (1997), were exhibited next to each other. Separated
in Marghera, their impact was weakened, somewhat, but the sexual innuendo and
the original imprint resonated. "Sleeping Dogs" consists of a group
of six-foot frankfurters lying around a campfire and encased in sleeping bags.
In "Back to Back (Belly to Belly)" we see two torsos roasting, impaled
on a turning spit to the tune of the Kingston Trio singing "back to back,
belly to belly, I don't give a damn, if I've done it already." The work
rings like a male bonding ritual. We are so aware today of the legacy of violence
against women, and even though you have said that the torsos were originally
male underwear mannequins, it seems that most viewers interpret them as female,
isn't this an offensive statement in this era?
Oppenheim: I am not a political artist. The gender issues taken up in art discourse
are valid, but have never won my attention. They seem superficial. Spinning torsos,
perhaps, confuse some viewers. They are male torsos, asked to reference mountains
and valleys as they turn, displaying their backs and fronts. Also the line in
the song, "back to back, belly to belly," is really about what I've
mentioned before: it's satire, targeting signature style.
Thea: Do you think the artist has to be responsible for the audience's interpretation?
Oppenheim: The audience is too diverse to get a general consensus. I think many
artists secretly address only a small number of people, they probably want to
win the more powerful and influential portions of the art world. The general
public is not as important to many artists as the media. But it is always inspiring
to see some artists break out from the force of influential critics and appeal
to larger forces found in a public arena. Some works, however, can mislead the
viewer. It is an outcome of multiple meanings. In "Sleeping Dogs",
there is the appearance of sexual content. These large hotdogs fit into the sleeping
bags almost as if they were made for them. But these images come through the
back door, not overtly or heavyhandedly. Putting hotdogs inside sleeping bags
came out of an imagistic dream, an associational flow of forces that were extremely
Thea: Are you talking about a romanticized place, where the artist can't articulate
Oppenheim: Well, I do think you have to articulate, but at the same time I think
we have to reinforce process. If you lead yourself into the work through the
intellect, and with cold, analytical, premeditated objectives, the work is never
going to succeed. The entry into the work has to be a double-faced combination
of sensory-intellectual flow. I mean, if I had this idea of hotdogs and sleeping
bags (like condoms), grouped around a fire, this would be a cold and uninspired
entry. The way to get good art is to discover it in a lofty, off-the-ground assemblage
of images that you can hardly see and then you pull them in. I don't know everything
about these sleeping dogs; they're strange. They are supposed to be strange,
art is supposed to be even stranger to the artist.
Thea: The works called "Buildings Poking Their Eyes Out" (1997) are
like a vision of the future; like a Rem Koolhaas line-up of shanties, a post-apocalyptic
Oppenheim: With this work I am pushing myself into the arena of public art. Not
that I am flooded with ideas or inspiration, or that I know the future as we
approach the millennium. I am trying to find an alternative to museums and galleries-but
knowing that public art has always been a bittersweet and disappointing context
over the last 20 years. It really has produced some of the worst sculpture in
Thea: Have you made any of it?
Oppenheim: Probably. It's a receptacle for bad art. What it offers an artist
is an excruciating interaction with bureaucrats and overseers who invariably
make a good work impossible. It aligns the artists with architects, who are often
resistant, and puts the artist into a no-win position of impossible problems.
One must develop a new kind of thinking process in order to interface with the
power structure of public art successfully. I believe there is a way to do it
but it has to be a kind of invention. I believe there are some artists, quasi-architects,
who are availed with this sort of weird invention, a way of entry, a way of sidestepping
all the problems. The pieces I showed are like catalytic components that hopefully
want to draw me into a discourse with this arena that I am describing.
Thea: Will these works be collaborations with an architect?
Oppenheim: I think it is dangerous for artists to get too close to architects.
You can be seduced by them. Their art is more limited-architects have considerable
social requirements-though secretly many would like to shed their restrictions.
If you bring in architects to help you, be careful: they have a way of socializing
everything, which often compromises the art coefficient. It is important to keep
doing serious studio work. I have asked Cella Imrey, an architect, to help me
with the structure of a large work that is being built in Lithuania, at the Europos
Parkas. You can enter it, but it is angled like the church piece.
Thea: I have references in my head, but I don't want to impose them.
Oppenheim: The fewer fixed associations the viewer has, the more that can be
received from the work. By leaving the nails out, instead of nailing something
to the ground, you can allow an associational stream that is more conducive to
good art. When I see good art, it's art that doesn't have all the nails pounded
Carolee Thea is a writer and curator living in New