New York

Dennis Oppenheim

Bonlow Gallery

Foolishness can be a great deal of fun, and we all know the art world thrives on it. It often seems that the sillier an idea, and the more ridiculous its presentation, the more chance it has of achieving the notoriety we so often mistake for success. But while it can be dismaying to have witless inanities and opportunistic attention-grabbers paraded as the latest and best in art, it is all relatively harmless. A few tempers are lost; a few illusions broken. Occasionally, however, the foolishness gets out of hand and more important assets are endangered. One such occasion was the “activation” of Dennis Oppenheim’s Launching Structure #2. An Armature For Projection. (From the Fireworks Series) inside the Bonlow Gallery one evening in late May.

Launching Structure #2 looked like a typical Oppenheim machine, a weird farmyard contraption of parts that never quite meshed, never worked in any functional way. Hardware, impressive in its shiny newness, lay sprawled with a gleeful lack of purpose across the gallery floor—a big, noisy machine, reveling in its bigness and noisiness. Like an imperfectly remembered, haphazardly maintained relic of a primitive industrial society, Oppenheim’s piece served as a convincing image of the decline of the machine age; and within such an understanding the boyish attachment to bright metal, moving parts, and noisemakers worked as a perfect complement to the more studied attempt to deal with power, harnessed and abandoned. Oppenheim was able to extend the metaphor dramatically by bedecking the machine with fireworks, allowing their spectacular ability to be both festive and scary to function as an image of the display of power as such, and as an image of its ultimate burnout—the long-smoldering remains of a brief moment of glory.

This romantic flirtation with visions of apocalypse was all very well, but, like most boyish activities, should have been kept outdoors. The decision to activate the fireworks indoors, in a poorly ventilated room, merely turned the grander vision into something more humdrum, and something potentially more frightening—a real, ordinary disaster.

The gallery, filled to capacity with the clanking and whirring machinery, was already claustrophobic; within moments of lighting the fireworks, which were all connected to long, continuous fuses, that phobia was made real. For the first two or three seconds the arcs of crackling fire promised well, but immediately a dense yellow smoke began to fill the room. As the atmosphere thickened the crackling turned more ominous as whole groupings of fireworks detonated together. With disaster in the air, people hit the floor, looking for air and an exit. Luckily nobody panicked, nobody passed out, nobody suffocated; remarkably patient firemen had to break out the back windows of the gallery to clear the smoke from the room, making it possible for people to move through the space again.

Afterwards, still smoldering, Launching Structure #2 looked like even more of a relic, and a sadder one. Whereas before activation the piece had had an irony in its presentation of needless power and energy, now, lying twisted and broken amid the broken glass, haunted by firemen in their dark rubber coats, crested helmets, and strange masks, it took on a more direct meaning, standing as a monument to the dangerous folly of most displays of power, including the rather pathetic ones we are used to in the art world. For a moment reality triumphed, and the familiarly protective mask of irony was shown to be defective.

Thomas Lawson