This month, I had the pleasure of speaking to Geof Oppenheimer, a Chicago- and San Francisco-based artist, about his upcoming exhibition, Inside every man, part of him wants to burn down his own house. The exhibition will open October 28 and run through December 11, 2011 at Ratio 3 in San Francisco. Oppenheimer’s most recent body of work includes a sculptural suite entitled The Modern Ensemble and a series of photographs that feature text from key interviews with political leaders. I asked him to describe the sculptures included in his upcoming exhibition:
It is three bulletproof plexi cubes that rest on aluminum bases. Inside each of the three are a series of detonations that have been set off that leave a kind of residue of the event within the cube. The cubes hold an aesthetic of violence within them—a violent history. At the same time, in my opinion, they are deeply sexy. They were designed to be seductively beautiful. I worked with a very traditional ideology of beauty for them because a lot of the conceptual intent is to make something very desirable that is at the same time violent or dangerous.
Below is a list of key texts that influenced the making of his new body of work:
Vanguard / Avant-garde (2006) by Susan Buck-Morss
The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819) by Benjamin Constant
Mao II: A Novel (1991) by Don DeLillo
Hitler’s Architect, Albert Speer; (June 1971) Playboy Magazine by David Irving
Sex Appeal of the Inorganic: Philosophies of Desire in the Modern World (2004) by Mario Perniola
Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means ( 2003) by William T. Vollmann
Oppenheimer and I spoke in person on August 16, 2011 to discuss his reading list and upcoming exhibition.
Kelly Huang: How did Mario Perniola’s Sex Appeal of the Inorganic influence your approach to the artwork, especially in regards to his thoughts on Descartes’ philosophies of the body and objects? I had the pleasure of seeing some of your sculptures in advance and to me, I can see the influence pretty directly.
Geof Oppenheimer: I mean, art is sexy. The stuff of sculpture, especially, is super sexy, and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t that aspect to it. You are dealing with the control of materials, the sort of desire you are working to create both within yourself and within another through an inorganic object. There is a sort of fusing of an organic sexual regime onto an inorganic object to make that connection. In my own work, I hope to make the objects, not figures in the figurative sense, but autonomous characters that have aspects of desire to them.
KH: Susan Buck-Morss’s Vanguard/Avant Garde addresses the relationship between politics and how the Constructivists, Futurists, and Suprematists developed their visual language. How did this text inform your approach to making work?
GO: I was introduced to Susan Buck-Morss in undergrad, pretty early. She was still a doctoral student. It was super influential in the relationship between aesthetics and politics, generally. Through the lens of art history there are these movements, but in a larger historical context, they were the aesthetic component for larger political movements (i.e. Fascism). That kind of political agency being involved in an aesthetic is something that is very nostalgically attractive to me. The specific essay I shared with you illustrates that framing of those movements. An aesthetic, in and of itself and a material, in and of itself can be viewed as a politic. The relationship between different materials and different aesthetics can carry political contexts.
KH: Many of the texts you provided relate to governing philosophies, such as liberty and the justification of violence—namely, in the context of war. As I was reading through some of your selections, I was fascinated by the questions these texts prompted for me. I was reading them through the contemporary lens of the US being at war for the past decade. Was this your thinking, as well? What sparked your interest in these subjects?
GO: I would say I have an overall interest in how people relate to one another. Violence and war is an often included, rarely talked about type of communication. It wasn’t specifically in a contemporary context. I think these are universal issues, and human-animal issues are more of my interest—both on the personal and the idea of protecting the self and the sovereignty of the body. And then there is a societal issue of when is violence justified, what is the relationship between attraction and violence, and repulsion and violence. Whether it is the theory of the abject or Bataillean theory, we are incredibly attracted to it, and there is an aesthetic of violence that is tied into these very primal ideas of who we are as a people. That is more my direct interest. Violence is political and it is a political tool, but it wasn’t specific to now that I was thinking about.
KH: You mentioned that the Albert Speer interview in the 1971 Playboy magazine had a direct effect on the photographic works in your upcoming exhibition at Ratio 3. Can you expand on that?
GO: The Albert Speer was direct research for the photographic project that is going to be in the show here. I was interested in getting to understand people in positions of power and what makes them tick—there are these stereotypes of either the narcissist or the control freak. The idea of a leader—what is that? The Speer article and the rest of the interviews I ended up reading for that series were all based on people in positions of power talking about the failure of their own ideological systems. It is a really long, beautiful article of Speer rising to the cause of Nazism, being a Nazi, realizing how far Nazism could go, and then remorse and what he could and what he couldn’t do. That is sort of a touchstone of the other interviews used in that photo series.
In doing research for this project, I read interviews of a wide variety of political leaders, from Castro to Thatcher to Reagan, the Albert Speer interview, John McNamara, where they are talking about where they failed. What I then did is took excerpts of those interviews that became a type of poetry—freed from their contexts and became these floating signifiers. I transferred them onto these placards that were being held aloft by a professional hand model. In doing so, I freed the text from its initial meaning and it became more of a proclamation that could be applied to general conditions, societally.
KH: William T. Vollmann’s tome, Rising Up and Rising Down, analyzes the definitions and interpretations of complex terms, such as deterrence, retribution and sadism by providing examples from history. Was there a particular example or passage from Vollmann’s text that stood out to you or informed your work?
GO: I think he is a beautiful writer. It is almost the opposite of what you would think. The ideas in Mao II —the relationship between spectacle and individual and the aesthetics of terrorism that Mao II are about—are really directly interesting to me in the work. With the Vollman, it is actually more the poetry of it. He has a thesis, but he also has these case studies. And these case studies are beautiful. This is non-fiction, and if I could put it into non-verbal form, I would be done. He hangs out with these petty drug gangs in Kingston, Jamaica and the language he uses gives this violent subject a seductive quality. And that was what the sculptures [in the upcoming show] were going for. So it is the poetry of the thing and the richness of the language that is really taut. When something is always about to happen or something did just happen and leaves a sort of poetry—that is where I was coming from.
KH: He definitely has a distinct style of writing that I really appreciate, especially in these areas, where he is talking about very complex ideas but he is able to bring you these case studies that really crystallize one perspective. He can then move it around and you can see it from so many different angles that you never would have thought of before. It was so interesting to go deeply into the text.
GO: The idea of the autonomy of the self and the autonomy of the body, and the right of protection and self-control is something that is very interesting. That is the most political—I believe in that. Vollmann talks a lot about just violence and just domination—when is it okay to defend oneself, but to ostensibly destroy the other. That is a really interesting subject on a totally personal level, without having anything to do with art.