Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories

Institute exhibition
21st November 2013 - 16th February 2014
Galleries 1, 2 and 3

Installation view of Gallery 1 during the opening night, showing:

Dennis Oppenheim
'Launching Sculpture #3. An Armature for Projection. (From The Fireworks Series)'
Scale model for outdoor work
Aluminium, steel, iron, wood, Pyrex, fireworks, electric motors

Courtesy City of Geneva, Contemporary Art Fund (FMAC)
Photo: Karen Atkinson

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.

During the exhibition three flare-sculptures from 1975 will be 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.

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.

Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories is paired with Stephen Cripps: Pyrotechnic Sculptor in the Upper Sculpture Study Gallery, and Jean Tinguely: 'Spiral' (1965) in Gallery 4 (until 5 January 2014). In 1981 Jean Tinguely (1925-91) declared Oppenheim the most important artist of the next generation. Stephen Cripps (1952-82) transformed objects with actions, sound and pyrotechnics, developing schemes for sculptures involving military hardware, fire, smoke, light and amplified sound. This exhibition celebrates the 2013 acquisition of his archive for the Henry Moore Institute Archive of Sculptors' Papers and spans the years 1970-82, beginning with his studies at Bath Academy of Art where he wrote his thesis on Tinguely.

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