Text by Graham Coulter-Smith
Sarah Oppenheimer has produced installations that alter according to the artist’s observations of visitors’ behaviour. She believes that analysing the behaviour of people in urban spaces can reveal how such spaces form behaviour and how behaviour can in turn impact on inhabited spaces. One of the problems she is observing is how uniform a behaviour can become, especially if the space is constantly changing as the exhibition is in progress. In Contained, 2005, and her earlier work Hallway, 2002, Oppenheimer covered the walls of the exhibition space with a modular cardboard cladding that resembles collapsed boxes. The cladding was able to be folded out to create a variety of sculptural configurations on the surface of the wall.
When the exhibition began Oppenheimer observed the behaviour of visitors, paying particular attention to how they responded to the space. She then performed an ‘analysis of human behaviour’ that translates that behaviour into a formal language that can be used to reconfigure the space which in turn should alter viewers’ responses.
Although obviously influenced by the human sciences Oppenheimer’s is an aesthetic interpretation. What is as interesting of her adoption of an ‘analytic process’ is the fact that she is creating what might be called interactive sculptural installation—which seems to be a highly original contribution to the genre. The parameters she uses for her transformation of her rooms seem less relevant than the fact that her attention is directed towards the viewer. The importance of this focus lies in the fact that whereas most contemporary installation artists talk about their concern for the viewer Oppenheimer is demonstrating it. The viewer’s movements in her installations observed—
directly or via video—become the input for her sculptural sensibility and the output is expressed via her alterations to the sculptural-architectural environment.
She talks about her observations and ‘analysis’ in terms of a process of ‘abstraction’ but it is also possible to suggest that what she is doing is oriented towards the human element that art eliminated with the dramatic move away from figuration that characterises modernism. Her work is certainly abstract but it is also appears to concern a humanising of the concept of space. For her, it seems, space is not an abstract idea but a place that is to a large extent defined by the bodies that move within it.
Minimalist art claimed to be ‘phenomenological’ but the onus was placed entirely on the viewer who was presented with an implacable sculptural presence that imposed itself on the viewer’s sensibility. In contrast Oppenheimer’s adaptive environments are imposed on by the viewers, albeit via the artists’ interventions.
The degree of importance that Oppenheimer assigns to the audience is evident in a recent work Lecture Hall, 2005, in which she auditioned actors to present an identical lecture on her work to a single audience. When the lecture was enacted she found that the behaviour of the audience was more interesting than that of the actors. Over time the audience became increasingly bored, and then aggressive, throwing things at the lecturers. When repeating a similar project in Stockholm, audience members left the lecture, and one later returned to remove her clothes while the lecturer diligently continued their presentation. Oppenheimer notes that by scripting a repetitive activity and then observing the audience the latter’s response became ‘the most uncontrolled, unscripted and most compelling’ element of the work (Oppenheimer 2005).
This piece was ultimately exhibited as a two-channel video projection in which video documentation of the audience was projected on the side of the room and the lecturer the opposite side. The work, accordingly, positioned the viewer in a virtual space in between audience and lecturer.