Dennis Oppenheim and Stephen Cripps

at the Henry Moore Institute

By Rosanna Hawkins

Published 17 December 2013

This autumn the Henry Moore Institute combines an exhibition of works by renowned American performance artist Dennis Oppenheim (1938 – 2011) with a display of archival material from lesser-known British artist, Stephen Cripps (1952-82).

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Rosanna Hawkins

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  • Cripps was heavily influenced by Oppenheim; both artists experimented with machinery in sculpture and fire in performance.

    A budding interest in the artistic potential of playing with fire famously led both of them, on separate occasions, to smoke visitors out of galleries (Cripps even joined the London Fire Brigade to further his study of pyrotechnics). Both artists blurred the boundary between performance art and sculpture and it is their joint preoccupation with how ideas are generated that explains the Institute’s pairing of their exhibitions. ‘Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories’ and ‘Stephen Cripps: Pyrotechnic Sculptor’ are both on display until 16 February.

    The exhibition’s main focus is work by Oppenheim from the ’70s and ’80s, including sculptures, photographs, drawings and video, and the stars of the show are two formidable mechanical sculptures. Oppenheim made his name with blockbuster performance acts such as Whirlpool – Eye of the Storm (1973), a smoke vortex nearly a mile wide. Once he began to work extensively with fire, the firework became central to his practice and came to symbolise his concept of the artistic idea.

  • Dennis Oppenheim, Whirlpool - Eye of the Storm, 1973.

    Standard white smoke discharged by an aircraft. ¾ mile by 4 mile. © Dennis Oppenheim.

  • The first encounter in the exhibition is with a working scale model of Oppenheim’s Launching Structure #3. An Armature for Projection (1982). This intricate machine, all cogs, wires, wheels and motors, spans the length and breadth of the opening gallery and is bursting out of the space. Oppenheim described it as a ‘rather perfect device to use as a metaphor for thinking’ and, although it isn’t entirely clear what this brain-like machine might do, butts of expired fireworks remain in its hollows as a tantalising suggestion of the sculpture’s potential. Visit on certain Wednesday evenings and you will be able to see some of Oppenheim’s flare works recreated outside the gallery.

    Curator Lisa Le Feuvre is keen for visitors to experience the full sensory range of Oppenheim’s work. Vibrating through the gallery is the sound of Oppenheim’s hand pounding against a wall; the eerie, expectant tones of this sound sculpture bring him into the room. What’s more, if you visit in the afternoon, you might be able to exercise your tastebuds too. The second sculpture on display can be powered up to make candyfloss.

    Oppenheim’s drawings appear to be plans for his sculptures, but they are in fact artistic impressions made after the sculptures in yet another attempt to investigate the creative process, what Le Feuvre describes as Oppenheim’s constant and elusive attempt to capture thought.

  • Stephen Cripps, Firework Boat, n/a.

    n/a. n/a. Copyright: the family of Stephen Cripps/Leeds Museums and Galleries (Henry Moore Institute Archives).

  • All that remains of Cripps’s sculptures are sketches, notes and photographs, and these are elegantly displayed in the Sculpture Study Galleries. Whilst Oppenheim’s drawings are decidedly performative, the sketches on display by Stephen Cripps are more personal and have the playfulness and energy of an artist taking risks with a myriad of ideas. Machine for Birds is a delightful visualization of a kinetic sculpture designed to scare birds that was displayed outside the Serpentine Gallery in 1975. Cripps placed equal value on unrealised designs and finished products.

    He was interested in when an idea becomes a work of art. His brainstorms and photographs of ‘test’ performances therefore make ideal partners to Oppenheim’s firework-launching machine, which visually describes the process of idea generation.

    This exhibition constitutes a compelling revisiting of Oppenheim and an excellent introduction to Stephen Cripps. Visit before 5 January and you will also be able to see a work by one of Stephen Cripps’ main influences. Jean Tinguely’s Spiral is on display in Gallery 4. Visitors are invited to press the red button to make the machine spin into life.

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