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"Dennis Oppenheim: One of the Key Figures of American Conceptual Art"
2001-02-28 until 2001-04-13
Irish Museum of Modern Art
An exhibition of works by one of the key figures of American Conceptual Art opens to the public at the
Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 28 February. Dennis Oppenheim: Land and Body comprises 16
Land and Body works from the 1960s and '70s including video and three-dimensional installations,
mechanised sculptures and large photo and text pieces, which document key works. A video programme of
65 other works provides an essential context for the exhibition within Oppenheim's overall oeuvre. The
exhibition is the most extensive showing of the artist's work in Ireland to date.
Dennis Oppenheim: Land and Body features many of the revolutionary ideas which Oppenheim, and a
small group of other young artists, introduced to the art world of the 1960s and '70s. A time of great social
and political change in the USA and beyond. Chief among these for Oppenheim was his rejection of the
conventional gallery space by locating artworks in the real world of the landscape - be it urban or rural.
Other defining principles included reconnecting something by radically altering its scale, using
quasi-scientific methods for the creation of art and making the work's configuration or duration subject to
climatic or other natural forces. 'Landslide', 1968, involved arranging angled boards around a slope of the
Long Island Expressway or, as Oppenheim charaterised it, activating a pre-existing landscape. For
'Gallery Transplant', 1969, Oppenheim marked out the exact dimensions of a gallery in the snow, which
then disappeared with the arrival of spring.
In 1970 Oppenheim described his attitude to traditional art spaces: To me a piece of sculpture inside a
room is a disruption of interior space. It's a protrusion, an unnecessary addition to what could be a
sufficient space in itself...At the point I began to think very seriously about place, the physical terrain. And
this led me to question the confines of the gallery space and to start working mostly in an outdoor context
but still referring back to the gallery site and taking some stimulus from that outside again.
The exhibition illustrates the extraordinary cohesive development and diversity of Oppenheim's work,
more especially the transition from Land to Body art in the early 1970s. This period saw the artist's focus
of interest move from the macrocosm to microcosm, from the earth to the body and its endangerment and
to the body as a means of accessing the mind. In 'Reading Position for Second Degree Burn', 1970,
Oppenheim lay in the sun for five hours bare-chested except for an open book on his chest. He described
the piece as having its roots in a notion of colour change. I allowed myself to be painted, my skin
The show also includes Oppenheim's surrogate performers - the mechanical puppets which represented
the artist's attempted withdrawl from the use of his own body as an endangered art material. 'In Theme
for a Major Hit', 1974, a two-foot-high puppet is seen prepeatedly performing strange, contorted
movements. The Oppenheim face on the puppet suggest that the artist, despite the myth of autonomy, is
constantly manipulated by external forces.
Born in Electric City, Washington, in 1938, Dennis Oppenheim lived in Honolulu and California before
moving to New York in 1966, where he continues to live and work. He executed his first earthwork in 1967
and had his first one-person show in New York in 1968 followed by showings in Paris, Bern and
Finsterwolde, the Netherlands, in 1969, and at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1972. Since then he has
created Earth works and Body works and also monumental fireworks, throughout Europe and North
America. In recent years he has had one-person shows in Washington, Mexico City, Venice, Geneva and
Barcelona and participated in group shows at the Whitney Museum, New York, the Pompidou Centre, Paris,
and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.