New York

Dennis Oppenheim

John Gibson Gallery

In the past, occasionally, and now with his current show, Dennis Oppenheim has resorted to a circular ordering of events. The pattern, for example, of “annual rings, taken from the cross-section of a tree trunk, was blown up to about 150 feet in size, then shoveled and chopped out of ice on the U.S. Canadian border” (David Bourdon, Village Voice, January 20, 1975). More recently, Oppenheim obtained the corpse of a recently executed German Shepherd from the ASP-CA, and draped it over the keyboard of a portable electric organ which trailed, I think, a kind of dark grease as the artist dragged it around for a while in concentric circles. As the dog’s body stiffened in rigor mortis, the instrument slowly responded in deepening and more loudly mournful tone (The Clocktower, December 1974). From the description, I am not at all sure I would have liked to witness this cruel happening. But I did wander into Oppenheim’s latest display which, if anything, seems to escalate his circular aggressions.

The percussive rattle of recorded, high volume machine-gun fire greets the visitor even before he enters the gallery. Inside, the place is pitch dark, illuminated only by four off-and-on large color movies in film loop, revolving around the walls as they do within their apparatuses. These images, of bits of country or wooded turf and pond being chewed up for target practice, are projected from a central turntable from which also comes the unsynchronized sound. At the time, it was too hectic an experience to think much about. But anyone would have been impressed by the unavoidability of being glared upon at irregular though inevitable intervals by the “bullet-spewing” light beams. It was a very uncomfortable sensation, made all the more hair-raising by the blasts of automatic weapons. Clearly, physical sound, perhaps eventually tolerable enough in itself, was never so impinging. You wanted to get out of its “way” in the darkness, knowing that it flooded the room indiscriminately. As for the immaterial images, they had the capacity to target you for a second, make you blend in, at too small a scale, with a changing and always lacerated landscape. On the fronts or backs (worse yet), of how many innocent visitors did I see dirt or water kicked up by an Unseen marksman?

That, then, was one number. Another, called Echo (1973), using the same arrangement, showed (in black-and-white), large hands slapping against a wall, accompanied by random explosions or a kind of thunderous pounding. Again, the same effects, this time varied by the notion that instead of being assassinated by gunshot, you or others were being swatted against the sides of the gallery. Of course it made no difference where you were: Oppenheim had a 360° option. I had to keep myself from feeling a silly, insubstantial gratitude in being alive—silly because these were obviously nothing more than flickering shadows and recorded sounds. Oppenheim’s juggernauts are ostentatiously artificial in their alarms, the better, perhaps, to let you keep in mind the complex pacing of aural and visual stimuli: the fact that his movies chase each other around your environment and that you will always come across them head on, even when you have turned away from them in flight. The areas outside the filmic perimeters are as fleeting as those within, just as one’s role as spectator and protagonist is freely and rapidly interchangeable. Who would not be dazzled by this bludgeoning efficiency?

But there are more subtle inputs at work as well. For one thing, the immediacy of the assault tends all the more readily to put one to isolating the urban-rural dichotomy in which the country is shatteringly noisier than the metropolis. Then too, the temporal difference between hit and report (back) of sound is echoed by a geographical one, as in the very literal sense when a hand smacks open palm upon a flat wall in a movie which is suddenly projected in the corner of the room. Such interplays within an intellectual system ramify Oppenheim’s expressionism.

I had two contradictory regrets. Was it some conditioning of the movies or a greater desire to partake of his material that made me long for a far higher technical proficiency in the images? Blurry and weak as they were, they had less penetrating power than they should have. I wondered, on the other hand, what would have happened if he had chosen to keep everything as is, but only to turn off the sound—given a tracheotomy to his vision. The very thought throws into relief what is achieved by that syncopated mayhem; it also conjures up a less explicit, possibly more compelling ambiance, violence occurring as in a silent dream.

The theme of random viewing, the imminence of a possibly lethal bite or sting, the dying away of sound and flesh—these recurring conditions have been amplified or tuned down in this artist’s chancy career. In a side room, an aluminum-headed mannequin faces, at forehead level, a suspended bell. Every minute and a half, the thing cracks into the bell, producing a gong that almost rocks you off your feet. I’m very disturbed by the Fauntleroy outfit of this bald, legless dummy, for it seems at best as if someone not of this world had tried to imagine what a human being looked like on the basis of insufficient evidence. As for the metal impact itself, it had about it a cold sensationalism that produced one more tinkle in Oppenheim’s war of nerves. His fury has a life of its own.

Max Kozloff