Dennis Oppenheim, Narrow Mind, 1974, fireworks, metal, wood, dimensions variable.

Dennis Oppenheim, Narrow Mind, 1974, fireworks, metal, wood, dimensions variable.

Dennis Oppenheim

Henry Moore Institute

Dennis Oppenheim, Narrow Mind, 1974, fireworks, metal, wood, dimensions variable.

During Dennis Oppenheim’s forty-plus years of artmaking, his idiosyncratic output was variously, if a little awkwardly, squashed into the categories of Land, Body, and Conceptual art, each of which he playfully mined and subverted. For the tightly curated show “Thought Collision Factories,” Lisa Le Feuvre, head of sculpture studies at the Henry Moore Institute, focused on the pyrotechnic pieces Oppenheim made between 1972 and 1986, emphasizing his playful, noisy, and outlandish machine structures and firework projects. At the center of the exhibition were two large contraptions from 1982, accompanied by Oppenheim’s plans for his major public commissions. While the fantastical dreamworlds Oppenheim sketched meticulously on large-scale sheets of paper were occasionally realized in his lifetime (he died in 2011), they remained for the most part preposterous proposals, with the drawings functioning more as promissory notes than as watertight blueprints for buildable structures. These works are hard to categorize as architecture or sculpture; neither do they fit the remit of pure “Conceptualism,” thanks to their clownish insistence on the materiality and making of the proposed structure.

Launching Structure #3. An Armature for Projection. (From the Fireworks Series), 1982, is a large-scale model comprising a muddle of cogs, plugs, firework-stuffed glass tubes, and containers mounted on metal runners. (Many of the structures never made it past the model stage.) Although the works can be switched on, to loudly shudder, shake, and chug, they are simply models, and the final, intended effect is revealed only through drawings, sketches, and (sometimes) photographs, as the attached fireworks would be lit only were the project to be realized outdoors. Vibrating Forest (From the Fireworks Series), 1982, was the largest kinetic machine on view, comprising a large heated fan atop two gigantic rocking half-moon structures mounted on tracks. Sticks of cotton candy located perpendicular to the floor face the fan and, as they slowly heat, melt into a sugary-sweet gloop. The burned scent of the spun sugar permeated the gallery, more fairground attraction than scientific evidence. Such machines are best described as playful contraptions or amateurish inventions rather than austere analogues for thought—though ideas, like machines, are frequently flawed. Despite the long history of machines and the diagram in twentieth-century modernism, of Oppenheim’s works are more in the vein of Caractacus Potts than Jesús Rafael Soto, with the playful and promised pyrotechnic pleasures of the sudden whoosh, whiz, and crank of Oppenheim’s fireworks inviting viewers to revel in the absurdity of their construction.

A selection of video works was also on show, including Whirlpool—Eye of the Storm, 1973, Oppenheim’s footage of an aircraft drawing a spiral of white smoke in the air, alongside Ratta-callity, a two-part sound piece from 1974. Documented by way of photographs and maps, Polarities, 1972, involved the artist re-creating his daughter’s first and his father’s last drawings writ large across the ground in red magnesium flares. This piece added a sense of poignancy and depth to the say-what-you-see logic of Photoconceptualism, which his oeuvre at first glance invokes. And there’s a humor to Oppenheim’s work, too. While videos such as Echo, 1973, in which the artist bangs his hand repeatedly against a wall, might make for uncomfortable viewing, they just as easily register as absurd and funny. Puncturing the heroic ambition of Land art through the insertion of his own body, or his family’s doodles, into its sublime territory, Oppenheim always privileged a mode of working that referenced an all-too-human order of fallibility and failure. Following the brief flaring of a series of Oppenheim’s firework signs from 1974–75, Narrow Mind, Mindless Less Mind, and Mind Twist, outside the gallery throughout the run of the show, their charred remnants were suspended on the walls: relics showing how Oppenheim’s unique brand of Conceptual profundity crackled with illumination and spark.

Jo Applin