Cathy Byrd meets Sarah Oppenheimer at the Baltimore Museum of Art to experience Sarah’s stunning architectural interventions. The BMA’s contemporary art curator Kristen Hileman creates unique relationships between Sarah Oppenheimer’s new commissions and other work from the collection, including a lyric 2010 sound art piece by Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz. Our ambient recording of Susan Philipsz’s The Shallow Sea is a special feature of this podcast.
Sound Editor: Leonardo Madriz | Photography featuring Sarah Oppenheimer’s 2012 commissions for the Baltimore Museum of Art; Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Acquisitions Endowment; and gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art | Sound Art: Susan Philipsz, “The Shallow Sea”, 2010, from the Baltimore Museum of Art collection.
CATHY BYRD: Today, I’m in Baltimore with artist architect Sarah Oppenheimer. The Baltimore Museum of Art commissioned her to do two new pieces for the reopening of their contemporary wing and she just gave me a tour. The physical experience is just stellar. This is brilliant work, Sarah. I’m curious about what kind of conversation led to the positioning of these interventions.
SARAH OPPENHEIMER: When I was approached by the museum, they asked me to come take a look at the space. In particular I was asked to take a look at this triangular wedge space that bridges an older wing of the museum— not only with an older construction date but housing an older collection—and the new or contemporary wing of the museum. I was asked to create a work in that wedge- like atrium that bordered the two zones of the museum. One thing that was extremely interesting to me is that the atrium space in some ways invited a massive, space-filling sculptural intervention, and it was precisely that which I wanted to avoid. I was very interested in thinking about how one could deal with the boundary without having to deal with the seeming presence of mass. I started to look at the porousness of the boundary on the edges of this wedge-like space. The space is notable because on one side you have this very thick limestone wall and on the other side you have a concrete wall with a set of pre-existing openings in it. Given the scope of the project, it became quickly apparent I couldn’t radically change either the limestone façade wall, which was a previous façade of the building, or the concrete cylindrical structure which remains the boundary space of the atrium zone. So I started to look for spaces within the zone that were porous, and specifically porous spaces within those edges and would border on other spaces in exciting ways. Ideally, it would not be simply a one-to-one condition where you have one space touching on another space, but where you might have one space touching on two other spaces or one space touching on three other spaces. That was really how those locations were developed.
CB: I know you talked to Tyler Green last week about how you view each project as investigating a problem or solving a problem of the space.
SO: One of the things I was referring to in that conversation was that, as a template for the work, I imagine zones of space having a degree of adjacency. I think of a way to catalyze the potential between the zones as summarizing the idea of “a hole.” But, a hole need not be an enclosed opening. So when I referred to a set of problems, I meant the kind of stacking of spaces that is so common and familiar in architectural space, and how one catalyzes or shifts the passage or flow between those spaces. That becomes the problem in any given condition. I have been very interested over the last several years in Richard Artschwager’s Locations (1969), particularly because that piece calls attention to the location, and also the presence of an artwork by its irregularity and its re-marking of space. I think that, in a very different way, these projects are speaking to that condition as well.
CB: You have said that your work relates to cognitive science and I know I experienced that just now. I definitely had a bodily impression and a psychological impression of the work. Talk to me more about that relationship with your interventions.
SO: I find cognitive science to be a very rich field in terms of instructing and investigating questions regarding bodily perception and experience in a space. It also removes actually any sort of—what I am not sure I would call spiritual or phenomenological questions—but it very much concretizes these in an empirical investigation. I find that to be a much clearer way to think about and to anticipate how people will experience something than to leave it to the fuzzy logic of perceptual presence. There are several different writings on the perception of the ground plane from one space to another, questioning how to regard an occluding edge and how the body will move around an edge and find a changing limit from one space to another space. I think a whole host of articles and essays have informed my understanding over the years of how one can think about the possibility of opening adjacent spaces into each other.
CB: You talked with Tyler about the idea of doorways having something to do with forgetting.
SO: It’s very interesting to think of architecture as a set of nested memory containers, so that each space has a different sense of experiential time. Museum spaces, particularly in the way that they are curated, are functioning in that sense as well. Each room becomes a marker of a certain historical period or a certain conceptual moment and I very much like the idea of playing on or troubling that boundary.
CB: Since you studied semiotics at Brown University and then studied art after, I wonder what is the relationship between your studies of semiotics and the work that you produce?
SO: In thinking about semiotics I was introduced to a whole set of questions regarding the relationship of language to the world and the relationship of language to itself. The relationship of language to itself seems both fascinating and very enclosed, and the relationship of language to the world seems almost forgotten in some sense or too readily summed up. In thinking about those questions, I was really drawn to something like cognitive science that poses a very different and potentially richer foundation for thinking about how language and representation more generally touches on the material and the mental qualities of the world, as if those things are totally separable. This is the big argument. I think the titling and also the typology more generally, which isn’t solely the titles, raises this question for me of how I represent the problems and variables that are implicit in each project. In the titles, each number and every title stands for a variable that I have isolated as significant such as whether you can see from space A to space B, or how many spaces contact one another in any given instance. In some ways, the titles both call attention to the most important aspects of the work, but they also erase everything about the work that isn’t systemic. I think that’s kind of a fascinating contradiction.
CB: The second intervention is more of an incision. I am curious what effect that particular cutting through space had for you.
SO: One of the things I have been interested in the past two years is how spaces are demarcated not only by the quality of the surfaces that surround them, or the quality of the volume or air temperature or sound, but also very specifically by light. One of the most striking things to me about the space near this limestone wall was that on one side you had this Dan Flavin and on the other side you had this very subdued, warm lighting that illuminated the Cone Collection. I was thinking about not necessarily opening a sight line, but opening a diffuse lighting condition that allowed for a light-based glow between these two zones of space. There were two aspects about that, that I am very excited about. First of all, the works in the gallery that are immediately surrounding the piece in the Cone wing were selected in conversation with the work in a number of ways that I found very surprising. Additionally, in the next adjacent gallery where you actually have a longer sight line towards the work and you see this long magenta glow in the wall, there is this extraordinary Henri Matisse with a very similar color, although in that case it’s a painted color as opposed to a light-generated color. That set of color relationships is really exciting to me.
CB: I notice that there is a sound art piece [by Susan Philipsz] that comes and goes through the incision.
SO: Yes, that’s very exciting. That was definitely a very unusual and exciting decision by Kristen to use the opening not only for light and sight to pass through, but also to have sound filtered up through the galleries into the upstairs of the contemporary wing.
CB: I think it’s fascinating. I love it. I experienced a haunting moment in the space with the glow on the Flavin side in particular and that voice! It seems almost like you’re in a chapel of some kind.