New York

Kristin Oppenheim

Kristin Oppenheim’s confident, Conceptualist sound installations combine an extreme austerity of means and materials with recorded loops of her own wan, hypnotic voice. Minimalism has clearly left its mark on the artist, as, perhaps, has John Giorno’s recorded poetry. In Oppenheim’s most recent piece, The Eyes I Remember, 1999–2000, viewers zigzagged through a maze of white, scrim-covered walls while her voice, sibilant and incantatory as if heard within the mind, issued from unseen speakers. It was difficult to make out exactly what was being said, but as I passed through the labyrinth it sounded like, “She’s very excited, you’ve got her very excited.” Perhaps as a result of my overheated imagination, I felt like a lab rat in an experiment—the cheese being either some aroused “she” or my own implication in some scenario of desire. But at the end of the maze there was no scene, primal or otherwise. It simply ended.

Oppenheim has put her ominous spin on lyrics by Lesley Gore and Beach Boy Brian Wilson; most notably, she lifted the opening lines of “Hey Joe” in a haunting 1996 installation that deployed moving spotlights in an empty gallery space. The advantage of this use of pop-music lyrics is that we are fluent in their rich simplicity. As part of the public domain, as “ours,” pop lyrics can be depended on as vehicles to reroute meaning. But in The Eyes I Remember, the words come from The Bridge, a contemporary (and relatively experimental) science-fiction novel by Iain Banks. (What I had heard was only part of a long passage that the artist excerpts.) Oppenheim’s turn to the realm of sci-fi expands her range but also raises the distracting issue of whether the maze and tape loop have a merely illustrative relation to The Bridge, like an art-school book report. Rather than defamiliarize the banal, Oppenheim has recontexualized the unfamiliar. For better or worse, we are left (to quote John Ashbery) “on the outside looking out.”

Oppenheim also presented photographic works and sculpture, suggesting a new, if uncertain direction. The photographs and sculptures in the rear gallery were elegant but coded and cryptic in the manner of Roni Horn’s work: three large double-exposed prints of a beautiful blond girl in early adolescence; three images of upreaching arms having something to do with the 1990 neo-noir film After Dark, My Sweet; and on eye-level pedestals, seven hand-blown glass “tiaras,” each with rabbit or donkey ears and variously configured serpentine motifs. Oppenheim seems to be interested in developing the elements of her work as if constructing pieces for a new game, one that would be played halfway between pop culture and a hazier sphere of more personal obsessions. But at this stage, it’s difficult to discern the rules or even whether it’s worth learning how to play.

Thad Ziolkowski