Sarah Oppenheimer’s interventionist art reveals unseen part of the built environment

US-based installation artist, Sarah Oppenheimer, with her latest work S-334473 at MASS MoCA, like her previous works, overlaps the wonder of art and architectural precision.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Sep 23, 2021

The art intervention, with an aim to (re)transform the given reality, irrevocably renews the interest of the viewers in an effort to realign their sensorial perspective on the enveloping world. At the intersection of art and architecture, stands the installations or the instruments of injections by the US-based artist, Sarah Oppenheimer. The title of her installations, with a single letter closely followed by the series of numbers or the other way round, like her installations, tends to defeat the conventional association between the name and its meaning. Her latest installation, S-334473 at MASS MoCA, Massachusetts is a play with the architectural precision of the space to alter its logics and let the audience experience a sense of displacement of what is “inside and out”, “near and far”, “here and there”.

N-01| Sarah Oppenheimer | STIRworld
N-01 Image: Courtesy of Sarah Oppenheimer

The exhibition’s display at the MASS MoCA largely ranges quite a bit from the large scale to intimate. “Sarah’s work falls between the two,” says Denise Markonish, Senior Curator and Director of Exhibitions at MASS MoCA, in an interview with STIR, “with the elements of the sculpture that take up volumes of space in how they interact with the architecture and the gallery in which they are situated.” Akin to most of the works at MASS MoCA that are expansive and require a considerable amount of time, Markonish informs, “the process around making S-334473 was quite expansive and took seven years to realise – including multiple proposals, alongside cutting through and opening up the building to install the piece, and then put it all back together like surgeons.”

The installation S-334473 is not static in nature, but oriented to be performative in nature involves close participation of the audience. For the American artist, the interests towards the need to develop art interventions stem from, “the entwined relationship between movement and observation (that) shaped my interest in developing a network of moving elements, one which requires the energy and movement of bodies to initiate a relay.” The rotational axis of the installation goes through the ceiling onto the floor above, which shows the mechanical infrastructure that puts the work in motion. When pushed vertically, the instrument comes into play with the buildings’ historic columns, and if rotated horizontally it takes the form of a reflecting screen. Both of these arching movements - vertical column and horizontal lintel – lead to the making of thresholds and pathways in an unanticipated manner. “Sightlines are redirected through the building’s interior spaces, towards the north-facing windows and onto the Hoosic River and mountains beyond.” The work and viewers, in-sync with each other, are instrumental to heighten the effect of knowing the unknown of the museum’s architecture.

Installation view of S-334473 | Sarah Oppenheimer| STIRworld
Installation view of S-334473 Image: Richard Barnes, Courtesy of MASS MoCA

Since the work is installed in a museum, the place where visitors are reluctant to touch the work, Oppenheimer’s work breaks the politics of sanctity imbricated within the institutional settings. Oppenheimer talks about this participatory nature of works to let both the work and audience speak to each other, “In each of my works, I perform a two-fold manipulation of the existing environment. The first maneuver involves the insertion of a discrete and bounded apparatus: a door, a window, a column, a beam. This element materially distinguishes itself from the surrounding environment. When work is powered by a human motor, the energy of a gesture is transferred from an active to an inert body, overcoming inertia and setting the environment in motion. This exchange sensitises the body to the environment and suggests a relationship of cause and effect.”

Installation view of S-334473 | Sarah Oppenheimer| STIRworld
Installation view of S-334473 Image: Richard Barnes, Courtesy of MASS MoCA

Echoing Oppenheimer’s views on the engagement between constructed world and human bodies, Markonish opines, “Because of this upending of our experience we end up feeling more attuned to how the body moves through space. Sarah and I have often talked about having choreographers and dancers engage with the piece once it is COVID safe to do so.” To add further, the curator says, “Ultimately, the hope is that the experience of S-334473 leaves people with a sense of wonder and a finer attunement of how one moves through the world. This work, in turning our environment upside down, reminds us to slow down and look closely at the world around us and be in tune with the wonder it contains.”

S-399390 | Sarah Oppenheimer | STIRworld
S-399390 by Sarah Oppenheimer Image: Courtesy of Sarah Oppenheimer

Her current work S-334473 like the installation such as D-33 at P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York, or 33-D at Kunsthaus Baselland in Switzerland, involve the industrial material such as glass, wood, metal, but it is the accuracy of mathematical ingenuity that produce the desired results.  The “biased pivot” which is integral to the work was developed by Oppenheimer in collaboration with Ohio State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering during a two-year residency at Wexner.

S-010100| Sarah Oppenheimer | STIRworld
S-010100 Image: Courtesy of Sarah Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, a New York City-based artist, develops her work from the tensions arising from the perfection of Euclidean coordinates and discursive understanding of it by humans. If on one hand, her art practice opens the opportunity to let the viewers enhance their perspective on the built-environment, on the other hand, it also allows them to experience that a human body could set an instrument into motion to a certain extent, and not beyond a given point.

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